THE CHRONICLE OF PHILANTHROPY
OCTOBER 21, 2010
THE FACE OF PHILANTHROPY
to Help Orphaned Kids
Hold On to Childhood
WHEN HE WAS 21, Ben Schumaker decided to spend a month volunteering in Guatemala, thinking it would make a nice break be-
fore graduate school. He certainly wasn’t looking for
an idea that could fuel a new nonprofit group. But
that’s exactly what began to sneak up on him one day
seven years ago when a Guatemalan man, who grew
up an orphan, came to visit the orphanage where Mr.
Schumaker volunteered. The two talked casually as
another American volunteer snapped photographs
of the children. The man remarked on how he had
never had any photos of himself as a kid, nor any
keepsakes. He said he had a hard time remembering
much at all about his childhood without parents to
help him do so.
About a year after Mr. Schumaker, 28, returned
to his home state of Wisconsin, he was struck by
a way to help. He contacted orphanages overseas,
asking them to take photographs of the orphans in
their care and send the images to the United States.
Then he sent e-mails to high-school art teachers in
the state to see if they were interested in developing
class art projects around creating portraits from the
photographs that could become visual keepsakes for
the orphans. Fifteen teachers signed up.
Since that time, Mr. Schumaker’s Memory Project
has delivered 25,000 portraits to children in 31 coun-
tries. About 1,000 schools have participated.
The project—run by a Sun Prairie, Wis., nonprofit
called My Class Cares, which Mr. Schumaker started
with his wife, Abha Thakkar—relies solely on money
provided by the schools. The high schools contribute
$15 per student, money often raised through bake
sales or from local businesses.
Last year, the group received $130,000. Along with
the Memory Project, the charity runs a smaller ef-
fort to bring school lesson plans to Uganda. About
$60,000 went to pay for salaries for Mr. Schumaker
and his wife, the two employees, and the rest paid for
travel and other expenses.
Mr. Schumaker started out by sending the por-
traits to orphanages in the mail. But he soon real-
ized that high-school students in the United States
got a lot more from the program when they could see
photographs of the children receiving and enjoying
them. So now he or someone else hand delivers the
portraits and sends photos and reports back to the
“It really made a difference for everyone to see the
end result,” he says.
When kids receive their portraits, some are giddy
and can’t wait to show them off. Others clutch them
close and laugh. Older children, in particular, may
have little visible reaction, says Mr. Schumaker, but
sometimes he’ll catch them admiring the portraits
Once in a while, he has the heartbreaking experi-
ence of delivering a portrait for a child who has died.
The friends of a Guatemalan girl who died of leuke-
mia hung her portrait in their room.
Mr. Schumaker often hears from U.S. students
who have participated in the program. Sometimes
the students and their families express interest in
adopting the children in their portraits; in some cas-
es, he has referred them to an adoption agency.
A few years ago, Mr. Schumaker almost handed
over the project to a larger charity that was interest-
ed in taking it on. But, he says, he realized he didn’t
want to give it up: “It’s more than a job at this point.”
Here, a student works on paintings of Haitian or-
phans. —CAROLINE PRESTON
Photograph by ZUMA Press/Newscom
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