After 40 years working in long-term care and leading Life Care Center of Sarasota, Florida, Nina Willingham retired on Jan. 8, 2021.
Life Care Center of Sarasota, where Nina served as executive director/senior executive director for more than 19 years, held a drive-through farewell party on Dec. 18 where residents’ families could come wish her well. Associates also held a socially distanced reception that afternoon.
“A distinguishing characteristic of Nina’s leadership style is the unending quest for excellence,” said Beecher Hunter, Life Care president for 14 years. “Evidence of that is Life Care Center of Sarasota’s receipt of the Gold – Excellence in Quality National Quality Award from the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living in 2013. There is no way to value the worth of her development of the talent of her associates, including producing young leaders, and her impact on the personal lives of the people she has led and encountered. And that includes me.”
Nina began her career as an accountant at the corporate office of a long-term care company. She was offered the chance to get a health administration degree and become a nursing home administrator.
“I never really dreamed of being a nursing home administrator,” Nina shared. “I volunteered in nursing homes as a teenager and again while I was in college, but it wasn’t until [my job as an accountant] that I ever thought about it. Without question, it was God’s plan for my life, and He guided me through many life experiences until I became an NHA.”
Nina has become an industry leader. In 2010, she won Life Care’s Chairman’s Award, which recognizes leadership and outstanding outcomes.
Nina has been a conference speaker and has taught many classes on the Baldridge program used in the AHCA/NCAL National Quality Awards. She has served the Florida Health Care Association in many roles, including as chair of multiple committees, state treasurer, secretary, executive vice president and president. She was part of a two-person team to establish the FHCA’s Quality Cabinet, and she has served the American Health Care Association as a member of the Ethics Committee and the Quality Committee.
“There are two areas of my job that I love the most,” Nina said. “One is a focus on quality which has yielded so many patient care rewards. The second favorite area is leadership. Nothing thrills me more than to see our associates grow in their roles and become more than they ever thought they could be. We have seen multiple associates go back to school with scholarship money received from FHCA and a local workforce consortium (CareerEdge).”
Nina has mentored many new executive directors and encouraged the staff at her building to pursue further education and career advancements.
“Nina encouraged each of us on a daily basis to be the best we could be,” shared Stephanie Muscati, business office manager at Life Care Center of Sarasota. “Her presence automatically made me want to be better and do better, not only for myself, but for her as well.
As the assistant business office manager and then eventually the BOM, Nina took me under her wing and took every chance she could to teach me a little here and there about being an administrator. One of the things I loved most about working for Nina is that she never had to ‘teach’ you something; if you paid attention to how she operated the building, presented herself and led the team, you would inevitably learn valuable lessons and traits from her.”
When asked for her advice for new EDs starting in the long-term care field, Nina said, “Set an expectation that you will love what you do. Remember that every day is an opportunity to build life experiences that will help you grow. Remember to find the blessings in the troubling times as well as the good times. Fill your mind with as much knowledge and experience as you can. Listen to your team, and don’t be afraid to admit you are wrong. Ask lots of questions!”
Nina shared that her favorite memory in her job was leading Life Care Center of Sarasota to become Life Care’s first (and only to date) building to achieve the Gold – Excellence in Quality Award from AHCA/NCAL.
“That was the culmination of a six-year journey toward excellence,” Nina explained. “To share that honor with our residents, associates and families was very special because they were all a part of the journey.”
Nina’s journey with Life Care may have come to an end, but she will keep the memories and friendships she has built dear to her as she takes this next step. She looks forward to having more time to engage in her quilting hobby, as well as working with her church’s reading program for children.
Nina summed up her career this way: “This has been a ministry for me – it has not been a job.”