HomeCommunity NewsDavid Laurell: JBHS Artists Reach Across the Globe to Malawians

David Laurell: JBHS Artists Reach Across the Globe to Malawians

Réunion, a French island east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, is the furthest geographic distance one can get from Burbank and still be on Earth.

While the distance from Burbank to Réunion is 11,700 miles, Malawi, a country in southeastern Africa bordered by Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique, is 10,200 miles away.

While Malawi is not technically halfway around the world from Burbank, it is pretty darn close. And yet, for some students at Burroughs High School, their care for the people of Malawi coupled with their artistic creativity, has dissolved that distance and brought about a neighborly closeness between Burbankers and Malawians.

That closeness is attributed to the school’s participation in the Portraits of Kindness program, which is overseen by library coordinator Julie Grene and art teacher Karen Nakashima.

The program, now in its 13th year, was established by The Memory Project, a nonprofit organization that encourages art teachers and students to create portraits for people from around the world who have faced neglect, hunger, abuse, loss of family, violence, war and extreme poverty. With a goal to promote cultural understanding and international kindness through art, JBHS artists have created more than 500 portraits of people from 19 countries including Sierra Leone, Vietnam, Rwanda, Nepal, Philippines, India, Colombia, Ukraine, Madagascar, Peru, Syria, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Venezuela and Cameroon.

This year, opting to continue the program outside of The Memory Project for the first time, JBHS partnered directly with Malawi. The reason for this direct interaction stemmed from a suggestion made by Janel Carrasco who works in campus security at JBHS.

Carrasco has a friend, Ilia Carson-Letelier, who has dedicated her life to philanthropy. After conducting a fundraising effort to educate children in Cape Maclear, a Malawian village with a high percentage of orphans due to malaria, Carson-Letelier’s passion for the area and its people quickly grew and she purchased a 1-acre plot of land to build an orphanage and small homes for single mothers and widows. Known as “Chipatso,” which means a gift in the local language, the project has seen Carson-Letelier move to the village to oversee the construction of the buildings, septic tanks and installation of solar power to compensate for a lack of reliable electricity.

“The Memory Project wasn’t able to put connections together in time for us to work with Malawi this year, so we decided to go with the project on our own,” Grene explained.

This year, 46 JBHS students created portraits for 35 people in Malawi, based on photos they were provided. Along with the portraits, the students also made friendship bracelets for Grene and Nakashima to take to Malawi during this year’s spring break. The duo also delivered seven suitcases filled with art supplies, clothing, hygiene items and books to the people. While there, they also conducted origami workshops with Malawi children.

Student artist Mela Gainer displays the portrait she created of Bertha Frackson, a single mother living at the Chipatso project in Cape Maclear, Malawi.

Earlier this month, the student artists who participated in this year’s program gathered at the school’s library for a presentation by Grene and Nakashima who shared stories, photos and videos from their trip.

The event, which included a buffet of traditional Malawian cuisine, concluded with each student receiving keepsake photos of the portrait they created, along with the portrait’s Malawian subject holding it. They also compiled scrapbooks that documented this year’s art supply donation.

Artists Paris Tesfu and Vanessa Mombrun shared how much it meant to them to create a gift of portraiture for someone living across the globe in Africa.

“This was Mela Gainer’s third year participating in the program,” said Grene. “Her subject was Bertha Frackson who is a single mother living at the Chipatso project. She loved her portrait and now has hers, along with those of her children, hanging on the wall of her home.”

Nakashima chimed in to explain how difficult it is for us to understand the meaning of these portraits.

“The walls of the homes there are completely bare,” said Nakashima. “They have nothing in the way of art or photographs, so these portraits are greatly treasured.”

Grene said the artworks the students create are truly done from their hearts.

“The portraits are a very personal endeavor,” said Grene. “A lot of thought goes into them, and they establish a unique bond between our students and the people of Cape Maclear, whom they will, most likely, never meet. It is a bond that they will all carry throughout their lives — a really special creation that comes from a place of caring in their hearts.”

Kayla Cabral, Lauren Baba, Alba Borrelli, Zoey Gould and Mele Gainer were among the Burroughs High student artists at the Portraits of Kindness presentation of their trip to Malawi.
Jenay Felix was one of 46 JBHS students who created portraits for 35 children and their mothers based on photos of Malawi citizens.
Janel Carrasco’s philanthropic friend inspired participants in the 2024 Portraits of Kindness program to partner with the people of Cape Maclear, Malawi.
Tam Ismeri, Phoenix Elkin, Jailyn Turner and Avery Marsden created portraits of people living in Malawi.
Lauren Olsen, Nana Bhambi, Niko Ferraiolo, Makayla Victoria and Audrey Stover were among those who attended the event.

DAVID LAURELL may be reached by email at dlaurell@aol.com or (818) 563-1007.

First published in the April 20 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

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