Stay focused. Be disciplined. Don’t take short cuts. Thirst for knowledge. No task is too small.

These values applied when Theresa Santoro began working as a hostess in her family’s Brooklyn Italian eatery and remain relevant in her life today, particularly as President & CEO of RVNAhealth where she inspires through an approach she calls servant leadership. Santoro’s managing style is nothing if not progressive; she believes that every role matters as much as her own, that each staff member is a colleague, and that no job is beneath her.

Her roots first planted in healthcare as a fourteen-year-old candy striper in a Brooklyn hospital where she was drawn to helping people at their most vulnerable; she helped feed patients, provided companionship, and even ran the occasional errand. By the time she reached twenty, Santoro traded her pink and white candy stripes and CNA and LPN nursing home jobs for a college education during the day and nursing positions in hospital cardiac and general surgical units in the evenings. There she cared for patients recuperating from acute situations by focusing on recovery as well as maintenance; this is when she knew her life would be devoted to healthcare and healthcare education. It was also when one of her patients played matchmaker.

The night before a favorite patient’s discharge, the man’s son attempted to bestow a thank you gift on Santoro for the exceptional care she provided to his dad; per hospital protocols, she was not allowed to accept the gift. Instead, she accepted his dinner invitation, and they were married three years later.  As her personal life evolved to include motherhood, Santoro worked a few night shifts monthly to keep her nursing skills sharp. She attributed this time to developing her wherewithal in healthcare best practices and pharmacological advancements.

“Moving from Brooklyn to Connecticut felt like going to Montana,” says Santoro, who first moved to the town of Fairfield before settling in to Ridgefield with her young family.

From Brooklyn to Connecticut

Moving from Brooklyn to Connecticut, in the wake of her husband’s job transfer, felt “like going to Montana,” suburban life was so unfamiliar. After originally relocating in the town of Fairfield, the growing family ultimately chose Ridgefield to settle down in. “I knew as we approached the [Cass Gilbert] fountain that this was our place,” she said. Following the move, now with three young children, Santoro paused her professional life to savor the time with them.

She volunteered time with each of her children separately, as Boy Scout troop leader for her oldest son; catechist teacher for her second child, a son; and Girl Scout troop leader for her youngest, a daughter. Be it luck, fate, or divine intervention, the catechism opportunity exposed her to Sister Joan of the Congregation of Notre Dame who managed catholic youth education at that time; Sister Joan encouraged Santoro to pursue work at “The Hill,” the infirmary where convent nuns received medical care. It was here that Santoro learned “grace, perseverance, composure, and the ability to self-reflect.” Soon thereafter, The Hill fell prey to a state healthcare regulation shutdown and the infirmary converted to residences served by the local Visiting Nurse Association, where Santoro was brought on as a visiting nurse. She found her calling working with patients in their homes by providing nursing services, offering emotional support in accepting medical realities that were not always ideal, and creating care plans designed to keep people at home and out of the hospital.

After eight years with the organization as staff nurse, clinical supervisor, and vice president of clinical operations, Santoro was appointed President & CEO in July 2007. Since then, she has led RVNAhealth through tremendous growth including the addition of hospice and nonmedical home care services, organizational rebranding, increased community clinics and wellness programs, construction of the 23,000 square foot RVNAhealth headquarters housing offices, treatments rooms, and an outpatient rehabilitations and wellness center, and a merger with Bethel VNA and New Milford Visiting Nurse & Hospice. Called “the heart of communities throughout Connecticut” by the local press, Santoro’s tutelage positioned the nonprofit as the premier healthcare resource for home and community-based care.

Grounded, Yet On Her Toes

It’s most likely her familial roots that keep Santoro grounded as a leader. An organically humble and respectful person, she holds admiration for those around her because she’s held many of their positions herself and is empathetic to their challenges. Immersion in the family restaurant and the value garnered from her parents’ strong work ethic are arguably the root of her willingness to still jump into the trenches to make patient phone calls, administer vaccines (with her still-valid Nursing license), or meet any departmental need that arises. “My philosophy is one of collegial support to create a culture of true collaboration. We are colleagues working together, each using our own talents to benefit our communities.”

In her spare time, Theresa Santoro enjoys reading to continue growing in her own shoes as an individual and as a leader and when stressed, immerses in the kitchen, drawing from her family’s restaurant to create healthy Italian fare. A dancing afficionado, Santoro snared the gold mirror ball trophy as the winner of a local Dancing with the Stars event, which raised money for local charities. She relishes traveling, driven by her lifelong goal of seeing as much of Italy as possible as well as resuming annual trips to Disney World with her three grown children where the family of five “plays in their past.” For now, those entrusted to her care, patients, their loved ones, and her colleagues are fortunate to be part of her present.