Raj Ramnarace Leads Big Brothers Big Sisters in New Directions
By Margaret Cox
When Raj Ramnarace ’85 retired last year, he didn’t sit back and relax for very long. Instead, he began to look for another way to connect with the community.
A 24-year veteran with the La Crosse, Wisconsin, Police Department, Ramnarace had extensive experience working with youth programs on both regional and national levels that reached as many as 400,000 kids. Eager to put his talents and energy to use for the benefit of others, he found Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Seven Rivers Region, where he was named executive director in May.
Big Brothers Big Sisters is a nonprofit organization that connects children who are facing adversity with volunteer adult mentors so that they may build lasting, positive relationships. Adult mentors are called “Bigs” and the children they are matched with are referred to as “Littles.”
Roughly 12 years ago, Ramnarace served on the board for the local branch of Big Brothers Big Sisters. Through this experience, he learned how much the organization positively affects the lives of kids, and how it provides a tremendous positive impact on the community. “There are cascading benefits when a community starts investing in its youth,” explains Ramnarace. “We are very fortunate here in the Midwest where people really care and they transform that caring into action to make a meaningful difference in our communities.”
The depth of Ramnarace’s personal commitment to serving as a positive example and giving back to the community runs deep. He credits a number of Winona State faculty members who helped foster these values in him, as well as the importance of being a lifelong learner. Ramnarace came to WSU as a non-traditional student, having served four years in the U.S. Army as a Russian linguist, and several years in different major at another school before settling on the sociology and criminal justice programs at WSU.
This life experience, combined with classroom learning and a fulfilling career, solidified the basic tenets that have guided Ramnarace for years. “The lessons that I have learned both inside and outside the classrooms are pretty basic,” says Ramnarace.
“First, talent is good, but persistence will get you farther in the long run. Secondly, learning never stops, especially the lessons we learn from our mistakes. And third, true satisfaction in life comes from the people and experiences we share, rather than the things we accumulate.”
These guiding principles have served Ramnarace well, and he never intends to stop learning from others. Because Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Seven Rivers Region covers five counties in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the opportunities are plentiful.
Each day he says he is humbled by volunteer mentors and council members who share their time and passion for making their communities better. As he reflects on a wall of photographs showing pairs of Bigs with their Littles, he is reminded of the tremendous outcomes of the program.
“They are happy and enjoy the experience of being together,” he says. “Although we ask for a one-year commitment from the Bigs the average relationship in this area is more than two years, and many are even five to six years.”
The benefits of the program extend well beyond the lasting relationships that develop between pairs of Bigs and Littles. Studies comparing children in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program for 18 months versus other children show that Littles in the program were less likely to use illegal drugs and alcohol, skip school or a class, and resort to violence such as hitting another. These findings help support the value of the program in building stronger communities overall.
In addition to managing staff and resources to meet the strategic goals established by the executive board, Ramnarace oversees the organization’s mentoring processes to ensure compliance with national standards and state and federal laws. Of equal importance is his focus on finances. Nearly all funding for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Seven Rivers Region is secured through individual and corporate donations, as well as fundraising events.
Ramnarace further supports these efforts by assisting with grant writing to help attract support from larger funding sources. Despite the challenge of maintaining the financial health of the program, Ramnarace acknowledges that Big Brothers Big Sisters is all about people. “None of the great things being done for kids by our program would be possible without our skilled staff, dedicated volunteers, and generous contributors,” he says.
“Big Brothers Big Sisters has existed nationally for more than 100 years. In our area, we have helped connect thousands of kids with caring adult mentors for more than 40 years. Our program makes a difference for kids and their mentors.”
Learn more about Raj Ramnarace’s work with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Seven Rivers Region at www.7riversbbbs.org.