Roberto Santamaría, the leader of the town's Health Department for nearly a decade, has been named the new executive director of Fairwinds, Nantucket's behavioral health center.
Santamaría became a recognizable face around the island when he was thrust into a leading role in the town's response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021. That experience was one Santamaría said he will never forget, but after more than eight years at the forefront of public health on Nantucket, he's ready for a new challenge.
"I have no shortage of understanding of how big this role is," Santamaría said of his new position at Fairwinds, which he will start in June. "I think that it’s important to understand that mental health is public health. Clinical health is public health. Being out in the community and doing preventative and interventional work, all of that is public health."
Santamaría and his wife Erin Schrader, the town's community health clinical administrator, own a home on Nantucket and are expecting their first child, a boy, in March.
"We love the island and felt very loved by the community," he said.
Founded in 1962, Fairwinds provides counseling and care to island residents seeking mental health and addiction services. The agency had launched a national search for its next executive director following Jason Bridges' announcement last August that he would be stepping down and leaving the island.
In addition to Santamaría directing a cross-jurisdictional team in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, he also co-led Nantucket’s first diversity equity and inclusion assessment and coordinated his department’s first multi-year strategic plan. He intends to leverage all of the connections and relationships he forged as the town's Health Department director to benefit Fairwinds in his new role.
Looking back on his time leading the Health Department, Santamaría said he was proud of what the town had accomplished in collaboration with other community agencies and groups during the COVID-19 response.
"I think town leadership and I, we moved mountains," Santamaría said. "It was a Herculean effort that I don’t know we could have done without the team we had. I’m very proud of every moment of these last eight-and-a-half years. I don’t know if I would have done anything differently. We saved a lot of lives and Fairwinds and the hospital were a major part of it. It took the whole community."
Santamaría acknowledged that his role with the town during the pandemic also led to some difficult situations, as every decision, guideline, and piece of information was second-guessed and often criticized.
"It was not easy," he said. "Some hurtful things happened and were said, but ultimately a lot of it was motivated by fear. And fear is hard. We did what we could and worked together, and the team and I understood that part of it."
Santamaría previously served as deputy and also interim director of public health for the town of Framingham, and director of public health for the city of Everett. This spring he will complete his doctorate in public health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He already holds several degrees including a Master of Public Health and an MBA, and is also a native Spanish speaker.
“We are fortunate to have in Roberto the experience, leadership, and vision to continue to grow Fairwinds to meet the evolving needs of our community," said Fairwinds' board chair Christopher Gagnier. "With Roberto’s leadership, we will deepen existing partnerships, pursue additional collaboration, create new and more robust funding sources, and provide even better service to our increasingly diverse community."
Santamaría will complete his responsibilities with the town and then join Fairwinds on June 17. Fairwinds intends to engage an interim executive director to provide on-island leadership for the next several months. Bridges will remain as Fairwinds' executive director until an interim leader is in place.
“We appreciate Jason giving us this time to transition to new leadership; we weren’t sure where this search would take us and could not be more pleased that we found Roberto right here on Nantucket,” Gagnier added.