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Breaking through Barriers

Eileen compliments Julie's dress and asks to see the latest pictures of Julie's three grandchildren; Julie happily obliges. They laugh and smile as if they've been friends forever. A remarkable 23-year friendship started from the perils of a traumatic brain injury. These two women are pillars in On With Life's history and are responsible for pioneering some of the biggest developments in brain injury rehabilitation in Iowa. Their stories and their legacy show the importance of breaking through barriers.


Julie Fidler Dixon, the CEO of On With Life, has always had ambitious dreams.


"I wanted to be an ACLU lawyer and fight for civil rights since I was eight years old," she said. She studied sociology and psychology with an emphasis on criminology at the University of Iowa with dreams of helping people in prison. After college, she worked at a correctional facility's work release program - possibly the first woman in the United States to hold such a position.


"That experience taught me that there was a need to help people get jobs," said Julie. She heard about a new program at Drake University in rehabilitation job placement - the first university in the world to offer this program. Another first, as she was the first person enrolled in the program. "My boyfriend (now husband) was a graduate assistant 
at Drake and told me about a brand new program being developed," she said. "I canceled my lunch date with him and
promptly signed up."


That canceled lunch date changed the trajectory of Julie's career. From that point on, her career - and her life - was devoted to individuals with disabilities. After two decades of working with those with physical disabilities, mental health issues, special educational needs and work comp injuries, Julie joined On With Life as its director of case management services in 1994 and became its first female executive director/ CEO in 2000. 


"The moment I stepped through the doors of On With Life, I recognized the essential role families play in the rehab process," said Julie. "That's what shaped my view of what's truly a person-centered approach."


It's also where she met Eileen Doyle, who had suffered an aneurysm at the age of 23. Her parents were told she wouldn't live, and she was given her last rites. Eileen, who had worked as an assistant manager at Richmond Gordman, had received rehabilitation at a couple different facilities in the Midwest and in 1991, became the fifth person ever served in On With Life's inpatient rehabilitation program. 


"On With Life definitely changed my life for the better," said Eileen. "My physical therapist was the one who made me get up and walk. I still remember her 26 years later." 


Eileen, who was living at a large geriatric nursing home at the time, was the first person served after Julie created On With Life's Supported Community Living program in 1998. Julie has always kept Eileen close to her heart, and that's why again she was the first person Julie called when On With Life planned to open the Apartments of Owl Creek in 2005. Eileen purposefully chose the apartment next to the Commons Room at the Apartments of Owl Creek, and appropriately so, as Julie calls her the social chair of the community. She's thriving there, exercising weekly and attending community events. Eileen also makes it a point to call Julie often to check in and each year on her birthday sings to her over the phone.


"I love Julie dearly; she's like a big sister to me," said Eileen. "She's so caring, and she really watches out for me. I think we have a really special relationship."


Julie knows how important Eileen is to On With Life; in fact, she has Eileen's permission to tell her story at every single new hire orientation. Over their 23- year friendship, Julie and Eileen have remained close and continued to break barriers in their own ways.


As Julie plans to step down after 45 years in rehabilitation, 23 of those years at On With Life, the rehabilitation community will lose one of its finest champions and biggest advocates. Julie's accolades are many - including the Lou Ortale National Job Placement Association Lecture award and the Brain Injury Alliance of Iowa's JoAnn Kramer Founder award. Her involvement in the brain injury community at a local, state and national level is impressive - serving on boards for the Brain Injury Association of America, the Governor's Advisory Council on Brain Injury and the Iowa Brain Injury Association. 


Julie has been at the helm as On With Life expanded its programs and grew its facilities to meet the needs of the brain injury community, putting On With Life on the map with other prestigious rehabilitation facilities. But one thing never wavered - her dedication to making the persons served and their families a priority. She knows that same passion will fuel On With Life forward, as the organization continues to change the landscape of rehabilitation.


"On With Life's deep and wide-ranging expertise will continue to be recognized on a larger and larger scale to fulfill the dreams of the persons served and families who come to us to get 'On With Life,'" said Julie. "Over the past 26 years, we've served more than 3,500 individuals from 25 states and 15 countries, and the reputation of our expertise will allow us to serve even more around the globe."


Julie's legacy will continue on through the lives of those she's impacted - the thousands of families and survivors, like Eileen. And Eileen has Julie's cell phone number to continue her tradition of calling to wish her a happy birthday.