One summer, Michelle Fuller, an Art instructor at Zeeland East High School, pinned a magazine article onto her bulletin board hoping to incorporate it into her classroom lesson. The article featured The Memory Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting intercultural understanding and kindness between children around the world through school-based art programs. When she later learned enough students enrolled to fill two advanced placement painting classes, she reached out to her administration to request funding for the program that provides painted portraits to overseas orphans who have little to no possessions, including photos of themselves. The program would do more than just fulfill core class requirements, it would bring great joy to children who have very little and pair them with Zeeland students.

Through working on the portraits, students grow their art skills, confidence, and help cultivate global kindness at the same time.

“I could sense my students initially felt anxious about the pressure to create a portrait they felt was ‘good enough’ for their child,” Michelle says. “After explaining the creative process and encouraging them often, they become more confident by the hour, and slowly begin taking more risks each day.” 

Michelle says students feel proud of themselves for painting a realistic portrait and, even better, they experience the pride of creating art that impacts a child's life.

“It’s a big deal to them. As the students are focused on their work, I enjoy hearing them discuss their portrait subject by name and bring friends into the classroom to show and tell about the project,” She adds.

Zeeland East student Lindsey Raab says her painting took about a month to complete. And while it was a slow and tedious process, she loved every second of it.

“When I began painting, I wasn’t very confident in what I was making,” Lindsey admits. “But when I got to the last step, I was proud of what I had accomplished and grateful the class was able to do this for these children.” Lindsey believes the project helped her grow as an artist since it taught her to be patient and “trust the process.”

Zeeland West student Aurora Rininger was also moved by the project. “I wanted the little girl who received the portrait to be happy about what I did and how I did it. I felt it was important for it to be something she cherished forever; something that changed her life and made it better, even in just a little way,” Aurora shares.

Staff from The Memory Project film the moment when the orphan children receive their portraits allowing art students to see the children’s facial expressions and delight in the impact. Michelle says the video arrived on one of the final days of class for her seniors so it was great timing. She and the students were in tears watching the children open their paintings and seeing their reactions to the portraits.

“This was such a profound experience as a teacher knowing I had helped my students learn how art they created affected a child so deeply,” Michelle says. “I can still see my students’ smiles, and feel their pride of accomplishment knowing their paintings made a difference in a very meaningful way.”

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