In 2001, Rao founded NAMI NJ’s first cultural and ethnic outreach program, South Asian Mental Health Awareness in Jersey (SAMHAJ), the first program in the country to provide support and education for South Asian Americans affected by mental illness, for which Aruna received the 2002 National Multicultural Outreach Award from NAMI.
She has been instrumental in developing programs for immigrants affected by mental illness throughout New Jersey, and her efforts have resulted in NAMI NJ receiving the 2014 Advancing Minority Mental Health Award from the American Psychiatric Foundation.
Her work in mental health has been recognized by the World Malayalee Council N.J. Chapter, the N.J. Department of Transportation Asian American Heritage Committee and Lions Club NJ.
She received the 2014 Agraj Seva Kendra Notable Indian Americans of New Jersey Award, the 2011 South Asian Americans Leading Together Changemaker Award, and the 2003 Leadership Award from the NJ Asian American Association for Human Services. She has served on the NAMI national Diversity & Inclusion Workgroup and the National Institute of Mental health Outreach Partner Steering Committee.
As the associate director in education and development programs, Rao had successfully organized the many statewide conferences and NAMIWalks that NAMI NJ held over the years. She also initiated impactful outreaches to public schools with culturally competent presenters and parent/provider advocates. She had made frequent presentations on mental health to community and professional groups representing NAMI NJ. Over the years, she has also mentored and nurtured many young interns and volunteers of NAMI NJ who went on to make an impact on different platforms in society, according to the statement.
Rao is passionate about advancing LGBTQ+ rights, especially in Asian Pacific Islander and South Asian communities. She serves on the steering committee of API Rainbow Parents of PFLAG NYC, and is the founder of Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies, a group developed to support South Asian parents of LGBTQ+ children.