Artistic Connection



If I could only capture his smile, Olivia Waters thought, I could capture the essence of Yousup — a 12-year-old Rohingya refugee confined in a camp in Bangladesh. 

“I couldn’t help but think that despite everything he had been through, despite all the things that must have been thrown at him this past year, he still looked full of joy,” said Olivia, 17, a senior at Hilton Head Island High School.

She was introduced to Yousup’s story through The Memory Project, a program that enlists high school art students to create portraits of children around the world who are in crisis.

The nonprofit project was established in 2004 by Ben Schumaker, then a student at the University of Wisconsin, and since then has delivered more than 160,000 portraits to children in 49 countries. The program works with charities abroad to identify children. Heart warming videos of the subjects receiving their portraits—which for many are the only likenesses of themselves that they have— are often shared with the artists.

Olivia loved the project from the moment she started.


“We’re given the child’s name, their age, their favorite color, and where they are from,” she said. “With every portrait, you can really find yourself connecting to the kid you’re drawing.”

Olivia’s teacher uses it in her art classes every year.

“Ms. Dobbelaere makes us research 10 facts about our refugees and the circumstances they’re in. It not only helps us learn more about them but gives us some perspective into their situation,” Olivia said.

Dobbelaere said that she learned about the project through a segment on “CBS News,” and she has used it in her Hilton Head High classroom for 14 years. 

“The heart of this project — combining goodwill and artistic skill — is a powerful combination that can absolutely have global impact, making a positive difference in the life of another through art,” she said. “We are honored to be a part of it.” 


The Memory Project charges $15 per student; at Hilton Head High, that fee is paid by the Island School Council for the Arts. ISCA also provides funds for the program at several other Beaufort County schools. 

During her freshman and sophomore years, Olivia drew portraits of two Syrian refugee girls as part of the project. For the portrait of Yousup, she used colored pencils for the first time. The portrait, which took 12 to 14 hours to finish, shows great depth and contrast. Her teacher urged Olivia to enter Yousup’s portrait in the national Scholastic Art & Writing Awards competition, a contest that attracts about 340,000 submissions from students across the country. Olivia won the regional Gold Key and the national Silver Medal in Art & Illustration. 

“Yousup kept going,” Olivia said. “The judges saw something in this guy, and I am guessing it had something to do with his smile.”

parenthood5Olivia plans to major in art at college. For years, though, she thought she wanted to be a pediatrician, treating children with GI issues — something she herself has coped with since early childhood.

“Since I was about 5 years old, I’ve struggled with gastrointestinal problems,” she said. “The doctors believe I have amplified pain syndrome. Basically, my nerve endings don’t turn off, so a stomach problem can turn into years and years of pain.”

Art turned out to be the best medicine for her.

“I spent most of my childhood in and out of hospitals, but nothing could make the pain go away,” she said. “Art was the one thing that could make me forget about the pain I was in. Focusing on a project made me forget, even if just temporarily, and distracted me enough to give me some relief. Art came into my life right when I needed it, and I honestly believe it saved my life.”

Olivia, who’s been memorizing Bible verses with the help of her father since she was very young, says she prayed over her career path and saw her Scholastic Art & Writing Awards recognition as a sign.

“I believe that this National Silver Medal that Yousup won was that sign I had been waiting for,” she said. “I feel like it was God’s way of showing me that this was the career path I was supposed to follow, that this was the way I could make an impact on the world.”