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University of Iowa News Release

March 30, 2005

Rehabilitation Counseling Student Wins United Way Award

The United Way of Johnson County (UWJC) has given a graduate student in the University of Iowa College of Education its highest award for her work as director of an agency that works to improve the quality of social services for children and adults.

Gillian Fox, founder and executive director of the non-profit LIFE Skills Inc., received the local United Way's Agency Director of the Year award during a special event last week. Fox is working on a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling and expects to graduate in May.

LIFE Skills helps individuals with some form of mental illness, mental retardation or other challenges live as independently as possible by providing or arranging for the provision of education, transportation, employment opportunities, counseling, treatment and other forms of assistance.

LIFE Skill's many programs include its Supported Community Living Program, which works on behalf of adults with mental illness, mental retardation, developmental disabilities or brain injury, to help them live and work in a community setting; the Adult Rehabilitative Treatment Option, which provides age-appropriate skills training or supportive interventions that focus on the improvement of communication skills, appropriate interpersonal behaviors and other skills necessary for independent living; and a respite program that provides families and guardians of mentally retarded dependents short-term relief.

Paula Kasper-Lundahl, co-chair of the UWJC's Agency and Community Needs Committee, praised Fox's work -- with LIFE Skills, as well as with United Way -- in announcing the award during UWJC's Celebration of Community Impact dinner last Wednesday.

"Since founding LIFE Skills 16 years ago, Gillian has built the agency into a strong, well managed, certified agency with 20 staff who provide personalized services to more than 130 people with disabilities each year," Kasper-Lundahl said. "Her agency has extraordinary staff longevity, in a field of service that traditionally struggles with high turnover rates, which says something about working for her."

She said Fox has also worked hard on behalf of United Way. For the past three years she has served as an agency representative for the UWJC, helping with its planning and allocations process, and she has sought ways to get news and information about UWJC before the public eye.

Fox thanked the UWJC for the award.

"It's an absolute honor to get this award," she said. "I'm grateful for United Way recognizing my work and dedication and the work of LIFE Skills. United Way really does make a difference in our community."

Fox, a longtime advocate of people with disabilities, founded LIFE Skills in November 1989 while finishing up a bachelor of science degree in secondary special education at the UI. The Iowa City native also is a licensed bachelor of social work for the state of Iowa.

Because of the demands of a full-time job in an especially challenging field, it has taken Fox 10 years to complete her master's degree. But as someone who oversees 21 staff members and clinical supervisors and about 130 clientele, she believed it was important to obtain academic credentials that would complement her extensive professional experience.

She said she chose a degree in rehabilitation counseling -- one of the top-ranked programs in the country by U.S. News & World Report -- because the program's emphasis mirrors her personal philosophy of seeking ways to help people with mental disabilities be as independent, as included and as integrated in society as possible.

"I've always had an interest in education, and that has always guided me toward the arena of working with people," she said. "When I received my undergraduate degree I got the idea that the community is our classroom, and that we are its counselors and teachers."

She said she's been fortunate over the years to have a dedicated, stable staff. One of her priorities is to make sure her staff, whose work can be emotionally and physically draining, know they're appreciated.

"One of the things that's really a focus for LIFE Skills and the board of directors is to make a work environment that's supportive of our employees," she said. "My staff works exceptionally hard, and the work they do is hard. There are a lot of challenges a counselor faces when people have chronic mental illness. It's important to have a space the staff can return to where they feel supported."

In a similar way, she said that the College of Education has given her tremendous support over the years as she's chipped away at her master's degree, particularly her advisor, Vilia Tarvydas, a professor in the Department of Counseling, Rehabilitation, and Student Development, and department Chair Dennis Maki.

In 2004 the Graduate Programs in Rehabilitation named Fox its Leonard Miller Scholar, an annual award that recognizes a master's student who has demonstrated commitment to the profession of rehabilitation counseling, excellent clinical skills, and extraordinary potential to contribute to the lives of people with disabilities through providing them with quality service. Fox also serves as a master's student representative on the graduate programs advisory board.

"We are very proud of Gillian's richly deserved honor," Tarvydas said. "Her work has influenced so many for the good. She is an individual who demonstrates how personal dedication, the highest ethical standards, motivational leadership skills and a caring heart can set the highest tone for her agency, students in the rehabilitation counseling program, and the rehabilitation community as a whole.

"Her commitment, intelligence and creativity have ensured that people with disabilities in our community receive the best services available in a responsive and highly professional setting," Tarvydas added. "I also know that she is one of those rare individuals who, no matter the personal cost, pursues doing what is right for the clients her agency serves and the profession."

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Media: Stephen Pradarelli, 319-384-0007,