From The Top: Blessings in a Backpack national board chairman

Naperville’s Ramona Ustian seemingly has been successful wherever she goes. Most recently she’s pushed the charity organization Blessings in a Backpack into the national spotlight.

The organization helps more than 64,000 kids in more than 600 schools throughout the country by giving them food to eat each weekend.

“The beauty of our organization is that we can provide food for students in our program for just $100 a year per child — that’s the cost of a weekly download off of iTunes, or a trip to Starbucks,” she says.

Ustian is serving a two-year term as the national board chairman. In July she could be re-elected for another two-year term. She became involved in 2008 and joined the board four years ago.

“I replaced Doug Meijer, co-chairman of Meijer Foods, whose company has been one of the organization’s greatest supporters,” she says.

Since Ustian took on the leadership role, the organization’s reported tax returns show that assets from June 30, 2011, to June 30, 2013, grew from $1.4 million to $4 million, a whopping 186 percent increase.

“We were also chosen by People Magazine to partner with them and were recognized in 2012 as the Charity of the Year,” she said.

Ustian hasn’t been afraid to take chances in her life.

She grew up near St. Louis and attended Illinois State University where she majored in accounting and went on to work as a CPA for the Deloitte & Touche accounting firm for three years. After that, she worked for 10 years in finance and planning, investor relations and corporate planning before the entrepreneurial bug bit, and she became a clothing consultant.

“I had clients I worked with through appointments, and I helped women put together their wardrobe,” she said.

Ustian then elected to change directions completely, and in 2009, bought a St. Louis-based wholesale coffee business that began in 1905, which she continues to oversee today. The small company has less than a dozen employees but services accounts that include Walmart, Pepsi, Sam’s Club and the Schnucks supermarket chain.

“I guess I’m just an entrepreneur at heart, and there are good people working here,” she said.

That entrepreneurial spirit has served her well, pushing her to try new things.

“As far as the Backpack group goes, I met Doug Meijer and found myself drawn into the mission,” she say.

“When Doug told me that 1 in 5 elementary school students are at risk of not having enough food to eat over the weekend, I was shocked. This is not a problem in Africa or Asia, this is right in our own backyard.”

Ustian rightly points out that kids who come to school hungry on Monday mornings “don’t feel good and can’t pay attention” and are likely to act out because of issues that are totally unrelated to the classroom.

“What chance does a student have to pay attention, behave and learn something under those circumstances?” she asks.

About his predecessor, Meijer says he could talk for hours about Ustian and the differences she has made in less than two short years.

“I can’t say enough about her,” Meijer said. “During my time as chairman, there were a lot of issues, and we were just trying to keep the organization afloat.

“We put a tourniquet on things, but Ramona has been really instrumental in getting things stabilized and on track and getting us more national exposure.”

Meijer adds that Ustian reflects “a passion for the organization and does a lot of behind-the-scenes work” from a financial standpoint.

“We were in a banquet in the past year with 500 people, and you could see her working the room and handing out business cards,” he said. “Her work ethic is impressive.”

Ustian says it is easy to believe in the Backpack cause.

“There are so many stories to tell,” she says. “One visit to a school is all you need to do to realize the many impacts this program has on the students’ lives.”

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