Portraits of kindness: Charlottetown students show compassion through art

Some Island students are creating unique, one-of-a-kind gifts for children in Haiti. It's called the Memory Project, where high school art teachers receive photographs of children from around the world, then spend a month creating a hand-drawn portrait which will be sent to the child.

Art students create drawings as a gift for children facing challenges in Haiti

Abby Hyndman, a Grade 12 student at Colonel Gray High School, created this portrait of a child from Haiti as part of the Memory Project. (Tom Steepe)

Art students at Colonel Gray High School in Charlottetown are learning about the power a pencil, a piece of paper and a photo can have on a child.

It's called the Memory Project. High school art teachers receive photographs of children who have endured hardships such as loss of parents, neglect, natural disasters, violence and extreme poverty.

Grade 12 student Hannah Peters chose to draw 15-year-old St. Clair Felima. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

Art students select their child, then spend a month creating a hand-drawn portrait.

This year, 18 students from Colonel Gray voluntarily paid a $15 fee to be able to participate and create a portrait of kindness.

"All we get is a picture of each of these kids, usually their first name, how old they are, and then sometimes we'll get a little tidbit of information like what's their favourite colour," said Jessica Sheppard, an art teacher at the school.

She said the students get excited on the day the pictures get passed around.

"Everybody wants to see them all, and it's who are you going to pick and if I'm going to get a boy or girl and what they're going to look like, so we just spread them out on the table and it's a first come first serve."

Grade 11 student Suado Yusef, who endured difficult conditions as a child in Uganda, said she felt an immediate connection with her child, 9-year-old Manderlie Guillaume. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

In the past, Colonel Gray art students have created portraits for orphans in Peru, Ghana, Nicaragua and Guyana. This year, it was Haiti.

Global awareness

Grade 12 student Hannah Peters said it's a chance to practise kindness and global awareness while using her creative talents.

"The more I worked on it, the more I kind of realized this is an actual person, not just a photo, like they're going to see this, they're going to own this drawing when I'm done, and it was really intimidating, but the more I worked on it, it kind of became more of a personal drawing than it would have been just something I was doing for class."

Suado Yusef said she felt an immediate connection with the children. For the first six years of her life, she too lived in poverty in Uganda.

The portraits will be delivered to children in Haiti. Colonel Gray art students will receive photos of children with their drawings. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

"That's how a I looked at it because I myself didn't have anything, and it's just when I saw my girl, in her eyes I could see myself," Yusef said. "She was just so dim, like she didn't have anything. I could see the sadness in her eyes and I once had that sadness, and now I smile everyday and I couldn't help but feel an obligation for it."

The pieces of artwork will include a photo of the artist when they're returned to Haiti. 

Pride in portraits

The students said they take a lot of pride creating their portraits.

Even though they've never met, they said they feel most rewarded knowing their portraits help the children feel valued, important, and not forgotten.

"I think I will take pride because I did something, I reached out, and maybe it wasn't the best picture in the world, it's not the Mona Lisa at best, but it's all about effort and caring," Yusef said.

Peters added, "I've definitely learned a lot about myself as an artist and I've just kind of reflected on how lucky I am and fortunate I am, and hopefully I will be able to continue to do other things to make people happy and feel as lucky as I am whether it's something as simple as a drawing."

The student artists will receive photos of the children with their portraits, so they too will have something to hold onto and remember from this experience.

Memory to hold onto

"I think pride is the first thing — you just get so happy knowing you've made somebody else have that joy in their life or have something special in their life," Sheppard said.

"We don't really know what these children are going through or their background or their family life, but you know in the picture that you receive back of them holding your drawing that they're happy and they've experienced at least a moment of joy and they have something special that they can hold onto and remember."