Students draw memories for orphans

With just a pencil in hand, Nancy McClanahan, a 17-year-old senior at Valley Vista High School in Fountain Valley, worked diligently to finish her portrait of Kala, an orphan from Nepal.

Nancy had in front of her two pieces of paper. One was a color photograph of a Nepalese boy and the other a black and white portrait of the boy that she had been working on for about a week.

She and about 10 other students in Michelle Delanty's art class are participating in a nationwide initiative called the Memory Project, in which high school students draw portraits of orphans from around the world and send them to the youngsters as childhood keepsakes.

Nancy has never met Kala, nor does she know details of his life. All she had was a single photograph on which to base her drawing and it's taken her about three weeks to complete her piece.

"I started out painting him and it turned out good, like it looked like him, but the color was way too dark," she said. "And then I did pastels and colored pencils, and I just didn't like the texture of it. So I just decided to do it in black and white."

Looking back and forth between the photo and her portrait, Nancy worked diligently to finish her project within the next few days.

"I hope he likes it," she said.

It's Delanty's first year at Valley Vista, a continuation school for at-risk teenagers in the Huntington Beach Union High School District.

She saw the project as a way for her students to think beyond their lives and realize that others are going through hardships.

"We all get caught up in looking pretty and being skinny and all the TV shows, and they don't really think about other people who are suffering, like these orphans," Delanty said. "So to give these orphans something to hold onto and give them a sense of ownership of these portraits is really cool."

She also recognizes the potential her students have to understand the value of the assignment.

"They come in here with a can't-do attitude, so for me my love of teaching is to express to them that they are worthy," Delanty said. "Every day I try to become a positive role model for them, and hopefully they understand that they are able to do this. They're just as capable as anybody else."

The Memory Project began in 2003 when Wisconsin resident and founder Ben Schumaker traveled to Guatemala as a volunteer to help with the orphans.

He said he felt powerless after his "idealistic bubble popped," realizing the orphanage he visited had multiple needs.

"The nutrition was horrible, there was very little access to healthcare and lots of the kids had health problems and skin problems," Schumaker said. "These basic needs were just overwhelming me, and I was just looking forward to going home."

Before leaving the country, a Guatemalan man who had been orphaned told Schumaker that he never had any keepsakes to remember his childhood by.

When the man suggested that the photos Schumaker was taking of the children be sent to them as a gift, it struck a nerve within the volunteer.

"I had just always had a real interest in doing portraits for people in my high school art class or on my own," Schumaker said. "I found that portraiture was a very powerful way to connect with someone and is a very personal gift to give."

He started the Memory Project in 2004 and has since sent about 60,000 portraits to children in about 35 countries around the world.

Schumaker said he's planning to visit six orphanages in the Philippines, where a portion of the country was recently devastated by Typhoon Haiyan, and help the children there.

Once Delanty mails her student's finished portraits to Schumaker in December, Schumaker will travel to Nepal in March and personally deliver the gifts as well as record video of the orphans receiving them for Delanty and her class to see.

"I want to thank Ms. Delanty and her students for creating those portraits for the kids in Nepal, and we're going to be excited to deliver them," Schumaker said.

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