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IU alumna who founded Overdose Lifeline was guest at State of the Union

Mar 14, 2024

IU alumna Justin Phillips, right, was a guest of Douglas Emhoff, center, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, during the State of... IU alumna Justin Phillips, right, was a guest of Douglas Emhoff, center, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, during the State of the Union address March 7 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Alex Wong, Getty Images

An Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy alumna who helps communities affected by substance use disorder was a guest in first lady Jill Biden’s box at President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on March 7.

Recently named Indiana’s 2024 Woman of the Year by USA Today, Justin Phillips’ initiatives have given families hope by providing access to life-saving treatment, education on how to better address substance use disorder and a message of compassion that removes the stigma around addiction.

Because of her work, which includes founding the nonprofit organization Overdose Lifeline, she gave opening remarks for second gentleman Douglas Emhoff on International Overdose Awareness Day in 2023.

IU alumna Justin Phillips, far right, watches as first lady Jill Biden arrives for President Joe Biden's State of the Union address o... IU alumna Justin Phillips, far right, watches as first lady Jill Biden arrives for President Joe Biden's State of the Union address on March 7. Photo by Chip Somodevilla, Getty ImagesWhen thanking her for a gracious introduction, Emhoff said, “We had the chance to connect earlier. You told me all about your son Aaron, and how you turned the pain of his loss into advocacy. The work that you and your family are doing today in Indiana, and across the country, is making a difference.”

The Tuesday before the State of the Union, she received an invitation from the second gentleman’s office to join him in the first lady’s box.

“It was an honor and a privilege to attend,” Phillips said.

Before helping people who are impacted by substance use, she was an injury prevention advocate. In 2009, she enrolled in the master’s program at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, the first of its kind in the world.

“I worked in the grassroots advocacy space for injury prevention, and I enjoyed the community engagement and connecting stakeholders to a cause, so I felt getting this degree from the Lilly School would be helpful to my career aspirations,” Phillips said.

Sadly, two years after earning the degree, her son Aaron passed away on Oct. 9, 2013, due to a heroin overdose. He was only 20 years old. When she attended a roundtable with Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and other community stakeholders, she learned about naloxone, a medication that will reverse an opioid overdose. At the time, IMPD first responders were beginning to carry the drug.

“I thought that this was something I can do,” Phillips said. “I can raise money and help the first responders carry naloxone, so that was really the initial reason for starting Overdose Lifeline.”

Her education and connections to the Lilly School of Philanthropy helped her transition from working in nonprofits to launching Overdose Lifeline, which helps individuals and families get help for substance use disorder. She sought advice and consultation from Una Osili, a philanthropy and economics expert, and Phil Purcell, a legal and fundraising expert.

“The faculty at Lilly are incredible,” Phillips said. “I learned such a wide range of information on the basic structure of philanthropy which has helped me tremendously.”

Alongside other advocates who have lost loved ones to an overdose, Phillips met with Indiana State Sen. Jim Merritt, another IU graduate. They started the legislation process to craft Aaron’s Law, which allows Hoosiers to obtain naloxone without a prescription. It passed with bipartisan support, and the bill was signed into law in 2015.

Justin Phillips speaks on advancements made in addressing addiction/substance use disorder. Photo courtesy of Overdose Lifeline... Justin Phillips speaks on advancements made in addressing addiction/substance use disorder. Photo courtesy of Overdose LifelineSince then, Overdose Lifeline has continued to advocate, educate and provide support for those in need. Its impact is spreading from Indiana to the rest of the nation. The organization developed the only youth awareness prevention program to address the dangers of opioids; the program is now used in 48 states. It was the first U.S. organization to be trained in delivering evidence-based personality-targeted prevention programs for at-risk adolescents and developed evidence-informed training courses.

“My hope is that through our work, the vision of Overdose Lifeline is realized; when the disease of addiction does not carry a stigma but is provided the attention and care required of a chronic disease,” Phillips said. “If this is realized, then the trajectory of this disease and all the numerous consequences will be greatly impacted, and some will be eradicated.”

She said she is grateful for her time at the Lilly School and has the following advice for current students.

“There is so much important work to do in the philanthropic space, and the personal rewards are many, so stay the course if this is your interest. Don’t give up, keep moving forward.”

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Nikki Livingston

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