A Q&A with Dora Zúñiga

The Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County executive director is on a mission to change lives big and small


PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN

Dora Zúñiga is executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County.

Describe one way a child’s life is enriched by being a Little.
It means so much to so many of our Littles, just knowing they have a friend who sees them because they want to see them, not because they have to see them. A Little’s life is enhanced by the power of the care and support they receive from their Big. And of course, in the process, the Big is equally inspired by the power of their relationship with their Little.  

How much time, money and resources does it take to be a Big? 
I wish that people would stop over thinking the whole idea of being a Big. If Madison is home and you’re pretty sure you’re not leaving, please consider becoming involved. We have two programs that both require a two year commitment. In one, you meet at school over the lunch hour or after school. In our traditional program the day and time is flexible; ideally we’d like for you to meet once a week especially in the beginning to really cement the friendship. However, we know that reality exists, so we always tell our Bigs to focus on quality over quantity. It’s perfectly fine to meet three times in a month because one of your activities involved going to Devil’s Lake. Activities should not all require money. We are blessed to have tons of free activities that we encourage our Matches to take advantage of around Dane County. Ultimately, the most meaningful part of the relationship for Littles is that their Big cared enough to be there consistently. It didn’t matter what they did together what mattered was that the Big was there.

What’s the best (or worse/or both) advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I ever received was the suggestion that I join a service club. Early on in my career my mentor, Karl Kellor, said to me that real grown-ups join service clubs and learn to golf. Karl was right about joining a service club. I’ve been a member of Downtown Rotary for almost twenty years. It’s one of the great investments of my time because I continue to learn through our programs and we do a lot of great things in our community. Now the golfing part, well, I’m not sure about that piece of advice. Maybe when I’m retired I’ll try it.

What goal are you currently working on? 
My number-one goal is to increase the number of children who graduate from high school in Dane County and help all of our kids break the cycle of poverty. Mentoring is a highly successful strategy to accomplish this because we attack the root cause of poverty. Rather than temporarily treating a symptom, our Bigs are working with children to define a path that leads them out of poverty. We want the kids in our program to have children of their own who have the opportunity to be kids all the time, not just a few hours a month. We accomplish our goal one child at a time. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County has a one hundred percent graduation rate for Littles; a majority of whom go on to higher education following high school. We invite families to join us by becoming donors and becoming Big Families—yes, families can mentor together. 

What’s your favorite work of art?
I love anything by Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Mary Cassatt. These particular artists speak to me because their works deal with real life, community and children. Additionally, art is a great way for me to learn about my Mexican heritage.

What do you wish you could tell your twenty-year-old self? 
Like most women I would tell my twenty-year-old self to learn to take care of herself first so that I could effectively take care of everything else on my plate. Specifically, make the time to acquire the habit of daily exercise and time to pray.

Who’s been your greatest inspiration?
I am inspired every day by the young people in our program who—with the help of their Bigs—are making great choices. I am especially proud of Keraa McCants who, with the help and guidance of her Big Sister Ann Staniforth, made a lot of really good choices and is currently a freshman at Edgewood College. Keraa inspires me because she doesn’t take anything for granted. She has a phenomenal work ethic and is determined to take full advantage of her college opportunity. 

What’s top on your bucket list?
I don’t have a traditional bucket list. My goal is to someday be a very active grandma—someday far off into the future. In the meantime, I strive to live fully in the moment, be grateful for the opportunities I do have, to travel and to try as many new things as possible.

What’s the best reason to stay up late?
To share a laugh while watching Jimmy Kimmel with my daughter, Ariana. Or simply to catch up on the day, while playing with our two doggies as a familia. 

What would you change about Madison?
I would love for Madison to recognize that the issues we are facing in regard to our children achieving academically is not a race issue but simply an issue of economic disparity that exists in our community. We all need to stop looking for an instant solution. It will cost serious money, in the short-term, to address the complex issues that we see. That investment, though, will lead to huge dividends in the future. Let’s stop talking and start investing our time our talent and, yes, our treasure so that we can start providing a richness of opportunities to everyone in our community. Our kids deserve our support.

For more information on Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County, visit bbbs.org

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