2024 innovationLEADER of the Year: On With Life

Pictured above, Members of the On With Life team at its Ankeny campus. Pictured from left: Sam Williams, director of nursing; Emily Theisen, occupational therapist; CEO Jean Shelton; Pat Stilwill, executive director of programs and services; Lindsay Maltas, physical therapist; and Megan Ihrke, speech language pathologist/team lead. Photo by Duane Tinkey

The Business Record’s 2024 innovationLEADER Award recipient is On With Life. The organization is the first nonprofit to receive the award. CEO Jean Shelton said the Ankeny-based organization has provided technologies to its patients who have neurological injuries or conditions that help them better navigate day-to-day life by allocating $5,000 of its annual budget to adaptive and assistive technologies.

With the funds, the nonprofit purchased a 3D printer that has been used to create devices tailored to specific individuals that attach to wheelchairs or assist with dressing or eating. An Iowa State University student recently partnered with the organization to create a plate for a person with a brain injury who could not properly concentrate on their food if all types of food on the plate were visible.

Pictured left, a plate cover created using On With Life’s 3D printer to help an individual with a brain injury who could not concentrate on their food if all the food on the plate was visible. CEO Jean Shelton said visual disturbances and impulse control issues like this are common side effects of brain injuries. Submitted photo.

On With Life also offers its adaptive and assistive devices for checkout and trial use through Easterseals Iowa, Shelton said.

A partnership centered on innovative facility design emerged recently when On With Life was transitioning 32 individuals in long-term care from its Glenwood facility to a new long-term skilled care facility in Polk City that opened in May. On With Life worked with SVPA Architects and the state of Iowa to design bathrooms that accommodate individuals who require two-person assists to use the bathroom. Shelton said the new design fills needs not addressed by requirements under the American with Disabilities Act.

Below, Shelton shares more about On With Life’s approach to innovation as an organization.

What drives a successful leader? 

The complexity of work in today’s work environment calls for leaders to be extremely self-aware, both of abilities and limitations — and having the foresight to create teams designed to enhance those abilities and mitigate the limitations — all with mission in mind. Team members need to know they will be heard, respected and rewarded for their work. Additionally, there is a need to maintain a clear focus on organizational goals while navigating the multitude of distractions that arise along the way.   

How do you define innovation as an organization?

Innovation occurs when we really listen to our audience. Some of our most innovative practices have been the result of taking the time to really hear about and understand the problem or challenge. Technology, information and data is so readily available it can become overwhelming. Yet a simple response to a well-understood problem typically wins the day.

How do leaders effectively guide a team through challenges or times of uncertainty?

Challenging times demand the leader be present and available. My team knows I don’t have all the answers; however, I believe they know I am there with them, working alongside them, pivoting when needed, scouting ahead for solutions and planning and adapting our strategies. 

Where are the opportunities for continued innovation in your field?

Assistive technology, especially in health care and disability, is a must. Whether it is focused on using technology to support staffing gaps or just making life easier for those we serve — we must move forward and seek out new and improved resources. 

What is one lesson from your career that you would share with emerging leaders?

Fail fast, learn from it and move forward. There is no time to dwell on failure, your team needs you to be a lifelong learner with the ability to adapt to the quickly changing environment. Expressions of compassion and kindness along with a reputation for truthfulness is never wasted.