Seven years ago, a newly graduated Ben Schumaker found himself volunteering in a Guatemalan orphanage equipped with a bunch of medical supplies and no idea how to use them. (He was a psych and social-work major, not a med student.)
Instead of fumbling around like the rest of us would have, however, Schumaker was inspired by an encounter with a Guatemalan man who talked about having no tangible mementos from his childhood.
From that conversation sprung the Memory Project, an “initiative in which art students create portraits (drawings, paintings, digital art, etc.) for children and teens around the world who have been orphaned, abandoned, neglected, or otherwise disadvantaged.”
Schumaker supplies the high-school art students with photos of children from all over the world—Thailand, Nicaragua, Guatemala, among others—and once the portraits are done, he brings them to the kids as gifts:
They’re special keepsakes for them to hold on to for the rest of their lives. Kids in orphanages don’t have keepsakes of themselves. They don’t have moms who are creating scrapbooks or baby books. It’s to help them see their unique beauty and immeasurable worth as unique children.
The Memory Project now includes more than 1,000 high schools and has helped deliver more than 25,000 portraits. It’s also been featured on CBS Evening News with Katie Couric and the Hallmark Channel. Check out the project website for slideshows of some of the kids and their portraits.
For Ben, what started out as a side project has become his full-time job. We caught up with him to talk about his work, his inspiration, and and why he pees sitting down.
What inspired the Memory Project? What does it mean to you?
I started the Memory Project as a way to practice kindness for others. I was really into the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism at the time, and thought it would be a great way to connect youth around the world in an exchange of kindness through art. It started as a hobby but has become part of my life.
What is your main goal with this project? What’s the best outcome you can think of for it?
There are two main goals. One is to provide kids with portraits that will contribute to their sense of self-esteem and self-identity. Another is to provide the art students who make the portraits with an opportunity to practice service and caring. The best outcome would be that the project as a whole helps the youth involved to feel love both for themselves and others.
Are there any particular moments or stories from doing this work that stand out to you?
The first time I delivered portraits to an orphanage, I didn’t know whether the kids would like them. Then one of them brought me into a bunkhouse and they had all made their beds and propped the portraits on their pillows. That was dynamite. It also meant a lot to hear for the first time that the project was really proving to be meaningful for the art students creating the portraits. In the first year of the project, one high-school student even tried to get her family to adopt the girl whose portrait she was painting. Since then there have been many stories indicating the same degree of caring.
How successful has this been, in your opinion?
For the kids in the orphanages, I think the portraits really have proven to be valuable. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that getting the portraits has been the most important event of their lives or anything like that, but I would say that on the whole the kids are very glad to have them. And for the art students who have created the portraits, I think the project has provided an opportunity for them to think more about the world and what they can do to help.
Do you consider yourself to be a good man? Why or why not?
Yeah, I’d like to say I qualify. At least my wife says so, and I suppose her vote carries even more weight than mine on this topic. She says it’s because I’m kind, nurturing, compassionate, strong, and not afraid of her tears or hormones. But above all, it’s probably because I take my leaks sitting down. Not in public restrooms, of course, but at home I choose to sit in order to keep the toilet cleaner for both of us. Being able to let go of your masculinity long enough to pee sitting down is backbreaking work.
What makes a good man, in your eyes?
Putting society above masculinity. I mean, sure, I think it’s important for a guy’s self-esteem to be masculine in some of the traditional ways. For example, I can drop down and do a hundred push-ups, no problem. I’ve run marathons and have a deep voice and once even pounded the crap out of a guy with a machete who tried to rob me in Guatemala. But I think it’s important to not let that stuff define you. To me, a good man places more importance on the wellbeing of society than on showcasing his masculinity (whether that be by making money, bagging girls, or doing push-ups).
Who has been the ultimate good man in your life?
Without a doubt, that would be Forrest Gump. Forrest never made a single decision based on a need for power or sex. He simply did what he thought was right in every situation he encountered. And by doing that he ended up becoming rich and famous anyway, but he didn’t even care. He only cared about being a good person.
Here are some of our previous Man of the Day profiles: