Wellness Coordinator Kim DeStefano Brings Holistic Well-Being to University Faculty and Staff

As the wellness coordinator in the Office of Human Resources, Kim DeStefano ’05 is motivated by a singular goal—to help faculty and staff members get and stay healthy, whatever that means for them. DeStefano is one half of the two-person team behind the University’s Wellness Initiative, which offers workshops, challenges, educational opportunities, programs and resources to empower employees to make choices and changes that promote a balanced and healthy lifestyle.

Virtual group fitness challenges, which DeStefano conducts via Microsoft Teams, have proven to be particularly popular in the time of COVID. Dozens of faculty and staff members have joined in to work on their cardiovascular fitness (jumping jacks) and strength (planks and core exercises) over the past year, under DeStefano’s instruction and unrelenting encouragement. She is currently leading a challenge to work up to 50 burpees over a two-week period.

“We’ve received great feedback on the group fitness challenges, especially with people not being able to connect in person as much,” DeStefano says. “Employees have appreciated the connection with others around a common interest—fitness—and the motivation I give, while also building up their physical strength.”

Through at-home videos, with frequent cameos by her dog, Brutus, and toddler son, Asher, DeStefano demos each exercise with varying degrees of difficulty and optional modifications so that faculty and staff with any level of fitness can participate. “I want participants to experience the physical benefits, but more importantly I want them to feel good about themselves, be able to participate to their fullest ability and enjoy themselves along the way,” she says.

“Kim is an essential component of the success of the Wellness Initiative program,” says Gail Grozalis, executive director of wellness and the other half of the Wellness Initiative. “She is professional, knowledgeable, caring and exudes positive energy, and she especially shines in the meaningful connections she makes with our participants.”

Focused on a holistic and multi-dimensional approach to well-being, the Wellness Initiative delivers far more than physical fitness for faculty and staff. Since DeStefano and Grozalis became certified health and wellness coaches in 2019, they have renewed their commitment to offer diverse programs encompassing mental and emotional well-being, stress relief, work-life balance, financial wellness and relationship-building, in addition to exercise and healthy eating.

“Promoting physical activity and good nutrition will always be part of what we do, but I love that we’ve been expanding beyond that,” says DeStefano. In April the Wellness Initiative ran a weekly guided meditation series, two sessions of Move. Pause. Breathe.—25 minutes of stretching, meditation and deep breathing—and a back-by-popular-demand workshop series on bullet journaling offered by a third-party expert in positive psychology.

DeStefano began her journey with Syracuse as an undergraduate student in the School of Education, having graduated in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in health and exercise science. Her interest in health and wellness stemmed from her time as a high school soccer player, during which she encountered injuries, surgeries and time spent in physical therapy.

“I started my degree with the idea that I would get my DPT [doctor of physical therapy], but over the course of four years, I became interested in so much more than just physical therapy,” DeStefano says. “I took nutrition classes and minored in psychology, where I started learning about how our minds work. I knew I wanted to do something to take care of people and help them feel their best.”

Upon graduation, DeStefano launched a 10-year career with St. Joseph’s Hospital’s cardiac rehabilitation unit as an exercise physiologist, conducting patient education and stress testing and writing exercise prescriptions for patients recovering from major cardiac events. Ready for a change of pace, she had her eye on her alma mater for career opportunities where she would be able to grow and evolve with a larger and more diverse organization. After a stint in the University’s special events office, she landed with the Wellness Initiative, where she has developed a real passion for worksite wellness and keeping the University’s employees healthy and engaged.

As a mom of two young children, the last year of working remotely has brought plenty of challenges, or growth opportunities, as the ever-optimistic DeStefano might describe them. Working odd hours around the kids’ schedules and juggling nap and feeding schedules with conference calls and work tasks became the new norm. Her husband Aaron, who works an overnight shift, was able to rearrange his work and sleep schedules when needed so DeStefano could run her programs and workshops, and they’ve also been lucky enough to have support from extended family to help with childcare.

“I’m pretty sure both of my kids have made an appearance on every call and in all my challenge videos,” DeStefano says. “It was definitely hard at first, as I’m sure it was for everyone, but as time went on we just went with it and adapted. Some days were a struggle but I’m all about staying positive. The work always gets done and I’ve been lucky to have all this time at home with my family.”

When it comes to her personal well-being, DeStefano stays active by keeping up with her little ones and doing at-home workouts—usually high-intensity interval training or yoga. She practices deep breathing exercises and isn’t afraid to find down time in front of the TV when her body calls for it. The DeStefano family is all about healthy eating, big on fruits, veggies and whole foods but allows for everything in moderation. “I do love ice cream,” she confesses. “So yeah, we indulge. I never want to deprive myself or the kids of anything.”