When a devastating fire forced Oakridge Gardens Nursing Center to evacuate its 52 residents this past summer, Sondra Norder opened her facility’s doors to many of those displaced and the staff members who cared for them.

Within hours, the president and CEO of St. Paul Elder Services in Kaukauna, WI, was on the scene at nearby Oakridge, helping to oversee transfers and putting in place plans to keep her residents and the newly arriving ones safe.

It’s not the first time the veteran administrator and attorney has stepped up on behalf of seniors in her state and, increasingly, for struggling nursing homes around the nation.

“At the heart of her being, she cares about people who need long-term care services and supports and those who have made the decision to care for those people for a living,” says John Sauer, president and CEO of LeadingAge Wisconsin. 

Norder, 41, is very much the face of her community. On-site, residents know her as handler of golden retriever Bella, an in-house therapy dog who entertains with her silly canine antics.

Online and in the press, Norder has developed a more serious persona, advocating for fair funding for resource-strapped nursing homes and, more recently, calling out the Trump administration for taking credit for facilities’ courageous efforts during the pandemic.

Norder’s faith, a commitment to power yoga and time with her son, Brady, 11, have helped her sustain her physical and mental stamina during this trying period.

In some ways, it’s as if she has been preparing for this her whole life. Initially interested in medicine, Norder enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where the healthcare administration program was highly focused on long-term care. While she hadn’t considered the nursing home field prior to college, she began volunteering and bowling or playing cards with residents. She fell in love with caring for seniors.

More than 20 years later, changing the perception of long-term care is mission-central for Norder. Her own mother became disabled after losing a leg to bone cancer at age 22 and once told her daughter to never put her in a home.

“Nursing homes may feel like scary places to a lot of people who’ve never experienced them before,” she says. “I’ve made it a goal to get out there and control the narrative, and I think it’s worked.”

Under Norder’s leadership, St. Paul has been recognized with a dementia care excellence award and been repeatedly named a best place to work. During the pandemic, Norder has been in the trenches, whether acquiring air handlers for a dedicated COVID-19 unit, praying at morning rounds or recording residents’ advanced care wishes.

A lawyer who earned her J.D. degree as a full-time administrator and new mom, Norder finds her legal background helpful in interpreting COVID-19 guidance and mitigating risks. She doesn’t fear opening the doors — virtually for now — because her team’s experience may be what builds support for the industry.

“I have a strong desire to be able to withstand whatever scrutiny comes my way,” Norder says.

Resume: 2000, Starts administrator-in-training program at Extendicare Health Services; 2001, Becomes nursing home administrator for Extendicare; 2001, Earns bachelor’s degree from University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire; 2010, Earns juris doctorate from Marquette University Law School; 2010, Joins St. Paul Elder Services as chief operating officer; 2013, Becomes president and CEO at St. Paul Elder Services; 2016, Opens memory care unit at St. Paul; 2020, Becomes vice chair of public policy for LeadingAge Wisconsin