Santilli remembered as fixture of senior community

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Mildred “Millie” Santilli, assistant director of the Johnston Senior Center and a dedicated advocate for those she served, died in March at 71 years old.

Her sudden passing was a shock to those who worked with her in the town, and they remembered her ever-present smile and creative mindset as the engine that kept JSC running.

Santilli and outgoing JSC director Tony Zompa had run the center since it was operating out of an industrial building on Priscilla Lane. The two were integral to building the current structure on Hartford Avenue, which has routinely played host to events that keep local seniors active and engaged.

“We worked very well together, actually building the senior center from the ground up,” said Zompa, who worked with Santilli for more than two decades. “We were together in the old highway garage on Priscilla Lane near St. Rocco’s. She ran the place, no question about it, and the staff worked well with her.”

Center coordinator Denise Bell said Santilli embodied the senior center and its values, and that the community will “never ever be the same.” She vowed that everything she does to benefit members of the center going forward will be in Millie’s memory.

“I want to continue to honor what Millie has built here, what Millie and Tony have built here,” Bell said. “I want to make her proud. I don’t want everything that she created here to be lost. It’s unfortunate because of the pandemic that we have to rebuild, but everything we rebuild here will be based on the foundation that Millie helped to build here along with Tony.”

Santilli tried to adapt events to fit the protocols of the COVID-19 pandemic, with one example being her outdoor Zumba classes offered in partnership with Denise Moio-Touchette at nearby Anchor Bay Pocasset.

Santilli had previously worked as the activity director and marketing director in two separate stints at Anchor Bay, and Moio-Touchette would like to honor her service. She is in touch with Millie’s family about placing a bench in her memory outside of Anchor Bay.

“She was just a kind soul [who was] ready to do anything for a senior,” Moio-Touchette said. “Whatever she needed, Anchor Bay helped her through COVID, as far as the center being shut down. So they were getting very creative in having the Zumba class in the parking lot. … We dedicated financially, paid for those classes, whoever took those classes, to help the senior center. Whatever Anchor Bay could do for the center, we basically worked with Millie.”

Moio-Touchette said Anchor Bay leaders have approved of the bench memorial, but she wanted clearance from the Santilli family before moving forward. She said Millie was “just so close with her son, her daughter, her grandchildren.” Santilli was even a children’s book author, publishing “Lila Lu: And the Things I Love to Do” in 2018 and “Ava’s Wish” in 2020. The latter featured illustrations inspired by her granddaughter, Ava.

“She was just an amazing, amazing person. A person would feed off her energy,” Moio-Touchette said. “I think the legacy would be that she was very compassionate, seniors first. Her seniors were always put first. She always wanted the best for them, even down to entertainers. She asked me who we had. She always wanted to do something special for them. It wasn’t just a regular senior center. She wanted them to enjoy. She put on dinner shows, she had bingo at night for them. The trips they went on, too.”

Moio-Touchette said Santilli was always “thinking outside the box” for seniors, and her compassion shined through in everything she planned for them.

“When you were talking to her and you saw the things that she had planned for the members there, it made it possible for our seniors if they wanted to go for a sightseeing excursion, or they wanted to go shopping, or they wanted to go on a little mini-vacation over a weekend,” Moio-Touchette said. “She wanted to provide that for them. … that they can still enjoy life even if they were not driving. There was opportunity for them.”

Mayor Joseph Polisena, who has worked closely with Santilli during his 15 years in office, said news of her passing was “very shocking.” He said Zompa stopped by Town Hall personally to deliver the news.

“She was a fixture up there at the senior center,” Polisena said. “No one expected it. Even Tony was kind of shocked. It was really too bad. She would set up a lot of the programs for the seniors. She did a very incredible job doing that and making sure the seniors were entertained.”

The senior center will forge on, but as Bell said, there is no way to replace Santilli. From helping move to a new building on Hartford Avenue, to moving events outside to keep members active, she always had seniors’ best interests at heart.

“She was an integral part of the senior center,” Polisena said. “She worked closely with Tony Zompa, they worked hand in hand. She was an integral part of the senior center and the senior programs.”

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