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Bristol memory project

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February 22, 2007

By CYRUS LEVESQUE

BRISTOL — On the wall of the Bristol Bakery between the main dining area and the back door, a customer can find several portraits to the left of the bulletin board. The pictures are by students at Mount Abraham Union High School, but they are not your typical school art project. They depict orphans from the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar based on photographs mailed to art students, and when they leave the bakery, they will be mailed back to those children.

“This is meant to be a gift that stresses their individuality and importance to the world,” said MAUHS art teacher Elise Cleary, who helped organize the portrait painting. “These kids don’t have much, and they move around a lot.”

The Memory Project, a Wisconsin-based group founded to help orphans around the world in an unconventional way, is coordinating the effort at MAUHS. Memory Project founder Ben Schumacher was inspired to start the organization after meeting a Guatemalan man who had been raised as an orphan. The man said that he had very few memories of or even connections to his youth.

So Schumacher started a program in which American high school and college students receive photos of orphans from various places around the world and paint portraits of the youths based on those pictures. The portraits in years to come will give the orphans an idea of what they looked like as children and as seen through the eyes of another person, even if that person is a far-off stranger.

Mount Abe senior Rebekkah Bernheim brought the Memory Project to her school. She said she saw the group featured on the evening news several months ago and thought it would be a good way to help people in need.

“It’s kind of a global outreach program,” Bernheim said. “A lot of them have been abused and neglected and don’t have photos of themselves or things to call their own.”

Nine Mount Abe art students took part in the project: Bernheim and her fellow art students Galen Helms; Anna Smith; Phoebe Low; Amanda Lee; Jessi Dearborn; and siblings Catherine, Michael and Anna Pierattini. The names and ages of the nine Myanmar youths were not released, but most portraits revealed a child in his or her early teens.

For the students, it was a mix of art and service. Ninth grader Anna Pierattini enjoyed the artistic aspect as well as the chance to do a favor for someone who has few possessions to call his or her own. “I learned how to get more active in the community,” she said.

And the local teens learned a lot from the experience, too. “It was really eye-opening. I did some research. The orphanage where these kids are from is remote,” Bernheim said. “It was a great experience overall.”

Anna’s brother Michael, also in ninth grade, and their older sister Catherine, in 11th grade, both said they enjoyed how they could use their artistic interest to help others. “I had a lot of fun doing it. I was looking forward to it all day while in school,” Michael said. “I’m glad they will have this in their life.”

The portraits have been on display in the Bristol Bakery and Café since Feb. 10, where they will remain until this Saturday, Feb 24. After that, Bernheim said they would be shown briefly at MAUHS, and would be sent to Memory Project headquarters by March 1.

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