Romola Ratnam of Mill Neck is working to improve children's lives a world away and in the process change the way people perceive charity work in Africa.
The 29-year-old graduate of Friends Academy in Locust Valley last year became co-director of the SEED Project, a nonprofit based in Senegal that teaches children through traditional Senegalese curriculum and by playing basketball. Participants have gone on to play at U.S. colleges, including Syracuse University, and in the NBA, Ratnam said.
"It's a shift in how nonprofits should be thinking," Ratnam said of the SEED Project. "Our job is to give them the tools we have here in the U.S. so they can go out and continue to change the community."
Ratnam, who ran track while in college, said she was attracted to the SEED program because of its combination of academics and basketball. Late last month, she hosted a Manhattan fundraising event that brought about $150,000 to the organization.
About 500 students have participated in or graduated from the SEED Academy since it opened in 2002, Ratnam said. Alumni are working in 16 countries; 10 played in this year's NCAA basketball tournament.
Aboubacar Casse, 22, attended SEED Academy in 2009 and is now interning for the SEED Project and UNICEF while attending Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire. He said he plans to return to Senegal and start a business to help create more jobs.
"I learned leadership, learned how to give back," Casse said of his experience with SEED."I kept working hard and that's how my dream turned into a reality."
Ratnam's work in Senegal comes as no surprise to her family. She was the kind of girl who made Christmas cards for homeless people, said her mother, Runi Ratnam, 63, of Oyster Bay. "She was always motivated, she's always wanted to do good."
Romola Ratnam went to Senegal for the first time in 2013 at the invitation of SEED co-director Noah Levine.
"I've been to Kenya and that was more of a typical experience of Africa," she said. "But as soon as I landed at the airport in Dakar, it was a completely different experience." Instead of the safari and "traditional" feel of Kenya, Senegal was contemporary and business-oriented, she said. But some of the schools didn't have desks, lights or Internet connections.
"It was a bit of a shock," she said. "At first it was heartbreaking, but then it was encouraging because I wanted to fix it," she said.
She quit her job with a Spanish banking group and started working full time for SEED, returning to Senegal twice."I think that the opportunity to work with young people that have incredible potential to make a difference is incredible," she said.
The SEED Academy, formerly an all-boys school, has expanded to include girls and added an after-school program for middle school students. It operates two schools in Senegal and is working to build a new campus in the next three years to accommodate another 120 to 150 students, Ratnam said.
Next year, the SEED Project will be partnering with USAID and the NBA to increase enrollment, Ratnam said. "We want to showcase the country to people in the U.S. so that they can see the awesome things going on in Africa," she said.