Riveredge finds its man at Milwaukee nonprofit

Rakowski, a longtime leader of Running Rebels, brings experience, love of outdoors to Saukville nature center
Ozaukee Press staff

For 14 years, John Rakowski helped lead a nonprofit organization that provides mentoring programs for young people living in Milwaukee.

As part of his work, he introduced those young people to hobbies such as gardening as well as the joy of being outdoors and the benefits of exploring the natural world around them.

“The goal was to connect them to something they weren’t familiar with,” he said. “That’s what a good mentor does.”

Now Rakowski will be doing much of the same but for a broader cross section of people as executive director of Riveredge Nature Center in the Town of Saukville.

“This is like that (his former job) but on a whole different level,” he said.

Rakowski, who was senior director of development and partnerships for Running Rebels Community Organization, took the reins at Riveredge last week.

“I was at Running Rebels for a long time. It was going to take something really special for me to leave there, and this was it,” he said. “I’m super excited to be at Riveredge.”

Rakowski, 43, replaces Jessica Jens, who resigned in January to take a position with Wisconsin 4-H, as the center’s permanent executive director. Kim Pemble served as interim director during much of the center’s nine-month search.

Rakowski, who lives in Bayview, brings to Riveredge a thorough understanding of nonprofit operations and fundraising, as well as an abiding appreciation of nature and the role it plays in the health of the human population.

“I strongly believe that all people should have access to nature, and I look forward to helping Riveredge continue to engage more people of all ages in fun, educational and healing outdoor experiences,” he said.

Elizabeth Larsen, president of the Riveredge Board of Directors, said, “John brings an enthusiasm and nonprofit background to Riveredge that will continue to grow the center. He is passionate about the  natural world and works to encourage all people to experience the out of doors.”

Rakowski said one of his priorities is to help Riveredge and the people who use the nature center recover from the pandemic.

“From the center’s perspective, are there partnerships and relationships that we can re-establish?” he said. “And are there ways to continue educating the community so people can take advantage of connections to the natural environment?

“It seems like people can use more of that in their lives.”

Calling himself a “practicing conservationist with a strong design to continue learning,” as well as an “avid gardener, novice angler and recreational kayaker and backpacker,” Rakowski said his connections to the outdoors were critical during the pandemic.

“If it weren’t for camping, hiking and kayaking, I don’t know how I would have gotten through it,” he said.

Rakowski, who attended several Riveredge events over the summer, said he was particularly impressed by the center’s legion of volunteers who contribute more than 14,000 hours of service each year.

“I was just blown away by that number,” he said. “It’s great to be surrounded by so many generous, hard-working, like-minded people.”.

While Riveredge offers educational programs for people of all ages, its focus on educating children and the Riveredge Outdoor Learning Elementary School is particularly exciting, Rakowski said.

“It’s absolutely awesome when you can connect young people to nature so early in their lives,” he said. “You have to have your interest piqued at some point, and it’s often more influential when happens at a young age.”






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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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