Ben Schumaker, Connecting Thousands with the Memory Project

Jillian Briare reports about a non-profit “that invites art teachers and their students to create portraits for youth around the world who have faced substantial challenges, such as neglect, abuse, loss of parents, and extreme poverty.”

Founder of The Memory Project, Ben Schumaker (on right in blue) with his mother (on left in pink sweatshirt) and partners at a Syrian refugee camp.

Ben Schumaker is the founder of the nonprofit organization The Memory Project, which connects thousands of youth across the globe every year through handmade art. It invites skilled American artists to create and donate portraits to youth around the world who have faced substantial challenges such as violence, disasters, extreme poverty, neglect, and loss of parents, and who many of which have little to no personal belongings. So far it has involved almost 300,000 youth in 55 countries since its start. Schumaker discusses working with international communities, building bridges where there are borders, and creating meaningful experiences for more than just himself. Q and A with Jillian Briare who once participated in this endeavor and made the portrait below:

Q: Have you always wanted to work in the world of nonprofits?

Ben Schumaker: I think so. I’d say ever since I was 18 I knew I wanted to go into that direction. In college, I had no idea what that would look like I was just searching for some way that I could fit in the whole realm of trying to work for the betterment of society in some way, which, of course, there’s so many different ways to do that and so many millions and millions of people in our country, who do that every single day. I did a bachelor’s in psychology, master’s in social work, but I still never really felt like I found my groove. This idea for the Memory Project really struck a chord with me and it’s been a great fit, I hope to do it forever.

Q: What is it like working with international communities?

Ben Schumaker: Well it’s fantastic, one of the things that I’ve really become passionate about in the last few years is trying to work with organizations and countries where we have some degree of cultural or political tension. So that means we’ve been doing lots of portraits for kids in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syrian refugee camps, Nigeria, places where there’s kind of a religious difference, certainly a cultural difference. We even did portraits for kids in Russia. The amazing thing about doing the project with kids in those countries is that for the most part they have never had any experience whatsoever or any personal connection with someone from the US, so this is sort of like their first introduction to a real American person. When they receive that portrait and they flip it over, and if the American art student has put a photo of themselves on the back, they stare at them and it really sinks in like ‘wow, this person from the US, which is a country that I may have heard a lot of conflicting things about in my country, they made this for me,’ and you know that that really hits them.

I remember when I was delivering portraits in Russia just about two years ago, so many of the Russian youth weren’t really curious to ask what do American youth like to do for hobbies or whatever, they asked, “What do American youth think about us?”

So, that to me is the reason why I keep doing this year after year is because I want to try to connect youth in a positive way around the world and really portraiture is just the tool that we’re using to do that. It’s that the portraits aren’t necessarily the entire purpose in and of themselves, it’s the connection that I personally am after.

Q: How do you go about bringing the project to new places?

Ben Schumaker: Sometimes I will specifically seek out an organization in a particular country where maybe there’s something happening, relevant world news. I knew I wanted to do this project with the Rohingya people in Myanmar just a couple of years ago, but I needed to figure out how to do it. I worked with UNICEF to do that in the refugee camp, which was a very targeted desire that I had to do something with them, whereas other times people will recommend an organization to me. Sometimes we work with organizations as large as UNICEF, which is pretty much the biggest in the world, and other times we work with ones that are as small as the memory project that are just a couple of people, so it’s really interesting and I never tire of like making new connections and exploring how we can do the project with new kids.

Q: How do people usually react when you approach them?

Ben Schumaker: It’s a unique project and it takes people a while to wrap their head around it, especially if I’m writing to someone in another country who maybe English isn’t their first language, and I’m some random person contacting him from the United States.

I definitely write to a fair share of organizations that don’t even respond. In fact, some people have even told me they thought it was a scam at first. I think it remains abstract to almost everyone until we deliver the portraits. When we do, the reaction of most of the adults that partner with us in foreign countries is to say, like ‘wow I didn’t realize it would be like this, I didn’t realize the kids would be so excited about this. I thought it would be just kind of like one of many activities we were doing this week, but these portraits really will be a special memory for these kids.’

Q: How long does it usually take from when the photos are taken to when the portraits are delivered?

Ben Schumaker: I would say at the shortest like six months and at longest 12 months, but on average nine months.

Q: So I know you founded the memory project, but what kind of role do you play in it now?

Ben Schumaker: Well before the pandemic I had six staff members, mostly part time staff members. Our little team played the role of coordinating all of the activities with all of the thousand or more art teachers and students here in the states, arranging for kids around the world to be photographed, and then connecting those children’s photos to the art teachers and managing the timing, all of that. Now that the pandemic has happened, I find myself back to being mostly a one person show — it’s kind of like the clock has been rewound by 10 years.

It got to the point where we had about 30,000 students involved each year. Now we’re back to like 10,000 and I have one part time helper, so, I mean it’s just me in my garage and my part time helper who works from her home! It’s an extremely small organization and if you visit the website, it probably seems like a bigger thing than it actually is, I’m guessing.

Q: What’s the most challenging thing about working with these international communities?

Ben Schumaker: Probably communication. Most of the time I’m communicating with someone I don’t really know who works at a children’s charity halfway around the world, and we’re mainly communicating by email, or maybe Whatsapp. For the most part they’re a stranger, and we’re trying to arrange a pretty fairly large scale project that involves a lot of kids with someone around the world, usually in the language that’s not their own, so that’s definitely a challenge.

Q: Does your job ever take an emotional toll?

Ben Schumaker: I love my job. I love every aspect of it, but the day to day work I would say is not super emotional one way or the other, it’s just kind of logistical. Receiving the portraits is awesome. I’ve been doing this for 16 years and I still love to open every package of portraits, especially when the portraits are just beautiful. That still gives me the warm and fuzzies for sure. I love looking at these beautiful portraits and thinking how excited the kids will be to see them.

So then, when we deliver the portraits that is almost always a very, very positive and heartwarming experience for me emotionally.

Even if I’m going to a place where people have really experienced a lot of challenges, like a refugee camp, I generally don’t go there and feel depressed by the situation. They are generally so excited about this and the kids are just thrilled. I started to feel after the first couple of years that the kids themselves didn’t want to be seen for the negative experiences in their lives, they wanted to be seen in a positive light, for the hope of their future and for all of the potential that they carry.

Q: Where would you say your passion comes from?

Ben Schumaker: I would say my parents, they really wanted to instill in me a deep care for others in the world, including people in other countries in addition to people in our own country. They were very much internationally minded and said, it’s important to us that you really understand that we are just one country in the world. My mom in particular is very much a giving person, and she’s always sort of told me that, you’ll know your own personal greatest happiness from giving to others. That deep connection and the human experience is just so much more meaningful than sort of living life for yourself. And I sort of followed that advice and found it to be true.

Reporting by Jillian Briare for the Reynolds Sandbox

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