Unblinking eyes follow you as you walk the corridor into this most unusual holiday party.

First, there's William Anthony Impagliazzo. Under a mop of hair he gazes intently, his bull neck leading to a tuxedo shirt and bowtie.

Over the words, "He was always for the underdog."

Billy, as his family called him, hoped to propose to his girlfriend on Valentine's Day, 1997. Instead he was killed that New Year's Day. Shot in the back at a party. He was 19.

Behind him, also watching, is Amanda Trippett. She's in a pink jumper and a white blouse, her thick black hair gathered in a top knot.

"She was a peacemaker," her poster says. "She saw so much violence around here that she was determined to help solve problems."

The seventh grader had been missing several months when her body was found in 1995, stuffed in a plastic bag and discarded near her house.

There are 57 of these portraits, 57 pairs of eyes that greeted those attending yesterday's holiday event at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

It's an annual party, and it gets bigger every year.

It's for families of murdered children.

There were clowns, and pizza, Christmas tunes and short speeches from politicians.

Wanda Robinson was there because it's one of the few places she knows where everyone understands what her life is like now.

Her grandson, Lamar Robinson, was killed in January 2006 after he left home to cash his first paycheck from the Cancer Center of America. He worked in the kitchen, was learning to cook. Whoever did it dumped his body and a hail of bullet casings from a car at 18th and Cambria in North Philadelphia.

She'd raised the 19-year-old since he was 2.

"After something like this happens," she says, "people tell you they've been there, they know how you feel. But they don't.

"But these people in this room? They know exactly because they've been through it."

She stops, touches a tissue to the corner of her eye.

"It's hurtful, but at the same time, it's helpful."

That's the hope of the portraits. Since the program began in 1993, more than 100 artists have painted more than 300 memorial portraits of young people who have been murdered.

Karl Hanson, a West Philadelphia painter, is responsible for 30 of those pieces. He said it's not by accident that the eyes seem to follow you around the room.

That way, he says, the portraits can do their job - which, in his mind, is to catch the eye of someone who could one day be a killer.

"I don't know who it discourages," he says, "but I like to believe that it stops somebody."

After he and the other artists finish the paintings, they present them to the families. The Lost Dreams on Canvas program keeps copies, which they send into the schools so that they might help to prevent future bloodshed.

"It's very important to me," says Hanson, 59, the son and grandson of painters. "I'm not a sign-carrying protest maker, but I can do this."

Melvin Figueroa calls what the painters do "hard finger" work - intensive, difficult, spiritual. And beautiful.

His daughter, Latoyia Figueroa, was five months pregnant when she disappeared in the summer of 2005. Her boyfriend was caught moving her body to Chester. He's serving a life sentence for murder.

"It hurts to see a picture of someone you loved," says Figueroa, who is 47. "And then again, it makes you feel someone cares."

The Lost Dreams program began in 1993, but its story really goes back to the death of Marcus Yates in 1988. The 5-year-old was hit by a stray bullet inside a Southwest Philadelphia grocery store, where he'd been playing video games.

When his father was shown on television wearing a Vietnam veteran's cap, another vet named Rich Montgomery asked if he wanted to help him form an advocacy group called Veterans Against Drugs.

They marched, they appeared in court to protect witnesses from intimidation, and they started an annual ceremony at Independence Hall to honor hurt and murdered children.

The daughter of one of Montgomery's friends was killed in 1993, and her family commissioned a portrait of her. Montgomery saw how it provided solace.

He called Judy Ringold at the Academy and wondered if they could create a program to remember young victims with portraits.

Ringold still runs the program 14 years later. Montgomery died of cancer in 2002. Each year in his name Lost Dreams gives out "Hero" awards to a few volunteers.

The artist honored this year is Eliza Auth, who is married to Inquirer editorial cartoonist Tony Auth. She painted four portraits this year.

Before yesterday's ceremony she described her method, how she begins by just gazing at the small photos the families share.

There was one - a young man standing in front of these blurry shapes - and she couldn't figure out the setting. Then it struck her.

"I realized I was looking at Christmas lights. And I just lost it. I just kept looking at him, and I felt I was talking to him, and he was talking to me. I've seen these pictures of teenaged boys, trying to look so tough. The more you look at them, their sweetness comes through.

"The more I do this, the more I try to concentrate on the little boy in them, under the Christmas tree."

Contact columnist Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.