Students paint portraits for HIV+ Kenyan orphans

Duplessie ’15 spearheads project after Nairobi visit

Kenya orphan portraits

The Landon community is tightly knit to be sure, but its positive reach has the power to go global. That is something Ashton Duplessie ’15 learned firsthand last summer when he accompanied his mother to Nairobi, Kenya, to volunteer at Nyumbani Children’s Home, which provides food, shelter, schooling and holistic care for HIV-positive orphans.

During the three-and-a-half-week trip, arranged by an organization called KEST (Kenyan Educational Service Trips) — a non-profit dedicated to improving the quality of life in struggling Kenyan communities — Duplessie played with the orphans, helped them with crafts and art projects, and toured the nearby slums.

 “I’m so glad I decided to go,” Duplessie said. “It was one of the best experiences of my life.” The impact was so great that Duplessie returned home wanting to do more — and lit upon the idea of painting portraits of the 13 Kenyan orphans who would be graduating from high school and leaving Nyumbani this spring.

“I wanted to bring that connection I had with the orphans back to the U.S. I started this painting project at Landon to raise awareness of the struggles that these children live with on a daily basis,” Duplessie said. “I witnessed that these kids did not have many keepsakes from their childhood. So, I decided that, through art, I could give each of them a portrait of themselves that they could have as a special keepsake.”

Duplessie shared his proposal with art teacher and Visual Arts Chair Walt Bartman and Upper School Dean of Students Harry Murphy, and they loved the idea. So Duplessie and Bartman went about recruiting 13 more Upper School Bears to paint portraits of the orphans and Sister Mary, who runs Nyumbani. Franco Abdala-Arata '16Deacon Brew ’15, Charlie Ellerman 14Garland Kennedy ’14, Sam Krauland ’15, Romare Marshall ’14, Tyler McTague ’16, Brian Merkle ’16, Peter Millspaugh ’15, Matt Schick ’14, Matt Seebald ’17, Kevin Soraci ’14 and Walt Spak ’14 willingly agreed.

“What’s neat about the boys being able to use their talents in a way like this is that it’s different than just putting paint down on canvas and being excited about it and calling it art,” Bartman said. “Here, it’s the same process, but you’re making it for someone and you’re kind of getting to know them even though they’ve never said a word to you. To know that it’s for a great thing and that these young people are going to love the paintings and know that a group of guys halfway across the world are thinking about them is a powerful thing. I think it’s pretty awesome.”

Lloydie Triplett Zaiser, founder and director of KEST (as well as daughter of former Landon Assistant Headmaster Bill Triplett Sr. and sister of alumnus Bill Triplett Jr. ’63), shared Bartman’s enthusiasm when she visited Landon for the unveiling of the portraits. Zaiser — who will deliver the portraits to the Kenyan orphans when she returns to Nairobi at the end of May — shared stories, pictures and videos of the orphans with the Landon students, in her own way painting a picture of what life is like for these half-a-world-away boys and girls who persevere in the face of adversity.

“You boys have done a wonderful thing for these children,” she told the painters, tears in her eyes. “I can’t tell you what this means to them.”

Bartman, meanwhile, hopes that other Bears will be inspired by this endeavor. “I think every boy should have a thing that they’re passionate about. For Ashton, this is his thing,” Bartman said. “It’s nice when you see our guys step up and do these sorts of things. I want every single kid to do that because I know they all can.”

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