Making St. John’s ‘the destination for senior living’

Published 9:01 pm Tuesday, February 8, 2022

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New CEO of organization brings a wealth of ideas to the job

Bringing 18 years of senior living experience, St. John’s Lutheran Community’s new CEO and administrator of the Fountain Lake campus started last week in Albert Lea. 

Sam Onyebuchi, known simply as “Dr. Sam,” started as a certified nursing assistant in southern California, where he worked for one year until his boss, the director of nursing, saw that he had talents in leadership and recommended he become associate executive director of memory care at the facility there, he said. 

After a year in that position, he went on to become an executive director of another continuing care retirement community, where he worked for six years in Claremont, California, on the edge of Los Angeles County. There, he was in charge of over 124 staff at the 250-bed facility, including independent living and assisted living, and he started the memory care unit there.

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Next, he started at a 198-bed facility, where he was hired on a contract for two years and then turned around and worked an additional two. He said the state had a problem with the facility and wanted to close it down, and he helped turn it around. 

“Within nine months, things started changing around,” Onyebuchi said. 

After that, he was hired by Milestone Retirement Community in Susanville, California, where he worked at a senior community that also had problems with the state and had nine months until it would be closed down. 

There were two state prisons and one federal prison in that community and the 78-bed facility there was one that brought many challenges, he said. 

“It was one of my greatest challenges of life,” he said. 

Hailing from Nigeria, he said he faced much racial discrimination, even by his own staff, as one of the only Black people with an accent in the community. Though it was his most challenging experience, it ultimately turned out to be his most successful, and he spent two years and nine months there. 

Within six months, he was able to turn the facility around and get it back in good light with the state. 

He started neighborhood outreaches, providing food and shelter to the homeless people in that place and started going around giving lectures, teaching people on how to live a healthy life and often appeared on radio, television and in the newspaper. 

He also helped get people certified on how to manage dementia, and increased their census from 55% occupancy to 85% in one year and at the end raised it to 95% occupancy. 

He has also worked in another senior living management position with a company called Meridian, as well as an organization in New York before being hired to start at St. John’s. 

He said he often traveled to troubled senior communities and helped bring relief to some ailing places. 

“At a time in my company, I became known as the fixer,” he said. 

Onyebuchi said though St. John’s is not like these other places he previously worked, there is a great general challenge in the health care industry right now. 

“I have made a resolve that whatever challenge, whatever problem that comes my way, I am able and capable — through the grace of God — to handle it,” he said. “If I have succeeded in other places, it’s also something I’m going to do here.”

Onyebuchi brings with him a wealth of knowledge in addition to his experience, including a bachelor’s degree in theology and philosophy in Nigeria. Since he came to the United States in 2012, he has also earned a master’s in counseling psychology, a master’s in gerontology and an associate degree in law in relation to health care. 

He is a licensed therapist and a licensed dementia trainer and practitioner, and has his post-graduate degree in gerontology. He also has a goal to get his MBA in health care management. 

He said he was attracted to St. John’s because of the hospitality and the respect he received the first time he was invited for an interview. He said he was also attracted to the peaceful, friendly ambiance of Albert Lea and the fact that Albert Lea is a Blue Zones community. He used to live close to Loma Linda, California, which is a Blue Zone community and has a large number of Seventh-day Adventists. He is also a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and is also a pastor for the church, still leading a congregation in New York online. 

Onyebuchi said he sees St. John’s as being in an era where it needs to further push the mission of the founders of the organization. 

“We are going to rebrand, we’re going to expand, we’re going to engage more in the community, and we want to make sure that we make St. John’s the destination for senior living,” he said. He hopes it can be known as a place where people can come and retire and live in a community that is safe, secure and feels like home instead of an institution. 

He said he plans to invest a lot of educational training for staff, and his major target is on resident focus and enhancement. 

Mark Light, a St. John’s board member, said the board has high hopes for Onyebuchi and noted he has many good ideas for the organization into the future.

“It came through when we were talking to him — his whole thing is about the residents out there and that the residents are being taken care of and the staff are being taken care of,” Light said.

Onyebuchi comes to Albert Lea with his 4-year-old son, Samuel Jr., who shares the same birthday with him. His wife is a doctor in Albany, New York, and plans to move to Albert Lea at some point in the future. 

The St. John’s campuses currently have a combined 200 residents and 300 staff.