Ben Schumaker ’03 is a bridge builder, connecting disadvantaged youth in 43 countries with their own identities by engaging American art students who produce portraits of the children.
As a social-work student living in a 7-by-12-foot room in a house near Union South, Schumaker created the nonprofit, Memory Project, in 2004. It invites art teachers and their students to create and donate portraits to youth who have faced substantial challenges such as neglect, abuse, loss of parents, violence, and extreme poverty.
“It’s awesome, in the moment, to see kids who get these portraits and how excited they are,” Schumaker says. “It’s wild for them to think that someone in another country would make this for them.”
During the first year, Schumaker built partnerships that resulted in 300 portraits being created from digital photos by middle school and high school art students. Today, the Memory Project has produced more than 100,000 portraits.
Schumaker, who graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 2003 and his master’s in 2006 — and whose entire family graduated from UW–Madison — credits faculty in the UW’s School of Social Work with supporting his efforts and UW–Madison with broadening his worldview.
“If I hadn’t gone to UW–Madison, none of this would have happened.”
“It got me involved in global thinking,” says Schumaker, whose parents live in Saint Germain.
Schumaker got the idea while working as a volunteer at a run-down Guatemalan orphanage. One day, a man from a nearby village visited. The man, an orphan himself, told Schumaker how much it would mean to the children to have keepsakes from this time in their lives.
Schumaker nurtured the project for a few years, then mulled turning it over to another nonprofit. As he contemplated that, On Wisconsin, the UW–Madison alumni magazine, published a story about the project. That led to a contact from CBS News, and the Memory Project wound up being featured on Katie Couric’s inaugural broadcast as the anchor of CBS Evening News.
Afterward, interest in the project soared, Schumaker identified a better funding model, and the Memory Project flourished.
“If I hadn’t gone to UW–Madison, none of this would have happened,” he says.
Thank you, Vilas County, for Ben Schumaker, who is improving children’s lives by providing them with a powerful connection to the wider world.