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Writer / Janet C. Striebel

After receiving nominations for many wonderful mothers in our community, we gave our readers the difficult task of choosing only one winner. The new 2014 Geist Mom of the Year is Julie Marks, who intentionally enjoys making the most of every day. She finds a reason to celebrate life not only for her two children, Seth (11) and Brooke (9) but for anyone she knows. By using the Wacky Holiday Calendar, she carefully orchestrates nationally recognized moments like Teddy Bear Day, Movie Day and Ice Cream Sandwich Day. A rainy day might inspire an inside picnic or scavenger hunt.

Julie, with long, wavy red hair framing her genuine smile, greeted me at her beautiful home. She guided me to the kitchen, where I met her daughter Brooke, who was busy coloring Easter eggs with two neighbor friends. Suddenly, I realized there is never a dull moment in the presence of Julie Marks.

Why does she choose to live life to its fullest? “Actually, what drives me are two major events that happened in my life within months of each other: a near fatal car accident and the loss of my mom,” says Marks. In April 1996, Marks was the passenger in a car struck head-on by a dump truck, leaving her unable to work for a year. In August of that year, while she was in rehabilitation, her mother was diagnosed with a rare terminal cancer.

Marks attributes many of her life lessons to her mom, who was so positive and well-liked by others. “My mom was a tremendous role model, not only as a mother and a humanitarian but as a career woman as well.” Unfortunately, in November 1996, her mother lost her battle with cancer. The viewing had to be extended to two days because there were so many people who wanted to attend, including a couple who came all the way from Japan to pay tribute to her mother.

Losing her mom strengthened her already close relationship to her dad. Marks recalls, “I focused on making his dreams come true. We went to Broadway shows and made each day special. We even traveled together on cruises to Europe and the Panama Canal.”

In 2002, Marks became a mother, which reinforced her determination to cherish every moment. She recalls, “I took both of my children to get their pictures made every week for the first three years of their lives.”

She is saddened that her children never knew their “Grandma Jewell” but thankful for the few short years they had with their “Papa” until he passed away in 2009 after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

Living Life with a Vengeance

“My motto is to live life with a vengeance,” says Marks, who has adapted this philosophy over the years. “We should create unique experiences every day because you never know if you will have tomorrow. I look back at the time I spent with my parents. They were my best friends. I have no regrets.”

As we talk in her living room, Marks points to the framed photos sitting on her bookshelves. She shows me a picture of her wearing a helmet when she attended the Chicagoland Speedway NASCAR racing school experience in 2012. She laughs as she says, “I got my speed up to 140 mph and I was in Kevin Harvick’s race car.” She then points to the photo of her when she participated in a flying trapeze school in Chicago, where she learned trapeze stunts and acrobatics.

In talking with me she shares how death has always surrounded her. She lost her first friend to cancer at age eight. Car accidents have claimed two of her friends, one in high school and another in college, and she has lost many loved ones in adulthood. She believes these experiences have helped shape her viewpoints about savoring life’s moments.

“Julie chooses to live life intentionally,” says good friend and neighbor Jen Searcy, who nominated Marks for this honor. “She’s the cruise director for our neighborhood. She puts a lot of effort into hosting fun events and goes out of her way to make sure everyone is included. Her home is a kid-magnet. I call her my children’s ‘fun mom.’ They call her ‘Aunt Julie’ because she is like family.”

Marks, a single mom, firmly believes the first 30 minutes of when your children get home from school are the most important. “This is when your kids will tell you what happened at school.” Marks grew up playing volleyball, basketball and softball. Her mom never missed one of her games. Being there for her kids has always been her number one priority. Like her own mother, she has balanced home life and a demanding career as vice president of a Fortune 500 company for nearly 20 years and now as president and partner in her company, Beyond Payroll. Her beliefs, which are unconventional in corporate America, have become widely valued as she has demonstrated exceptional leadership to her employees. Her philosophy states, “No recital or kids’ activities will be missed on my watch,” and she encourages her associates to leave work and be present for these invaluable moments.

In fact, her highly innovative approach has been featured in the leadership books “The Encore Effect” and “You Don’t Need a Title to Be a Leader” and in television/ radio interviews. She has appeared as a recurring guest for the Mom’s Panel segment on the FOX-59 Morning Show.

Philanthropy is also very important to Marks. She has shared her passion for community leadership through involvement in sponsoring a child for the Make a Wish Foundation, leading a house build for Habitat for Humanity, volunteering for the Lawrence Township School Foundation and serving as a speaker and mentor for Dress for Success Professional Women’s Group, and she gives her time as a keynote speaker for many professional and women’s organizations.

Obviously, her children have begun collecting positive memories. Her daughter Brooke says, “I liked when we had Backwards Day. We rearranged the furniture; we ate pork, mashed potatoes and green beans for breakfast and had eggs, bacon and waffles for dinner. I also like our Happy Jar. We write things that make us happy on sticky notes and put them in a jar we painted. At the end of the year we empty them out and read them.”

“I really like Talk like a Pirate Day,” says Seth, Marks’ son. “We get to have friends over, eat pigs in a blanket (pirate fingers) and green pasta (seaweed). Also, I enjoy Dr. Seuss’ birthday when we watch a movie, decorate the kitchen and have green eggs and ham and blue jello with goldfish inside. ”As another tradition, every night at dinner, Marks and her two kids play Rose and Thorn where they talk about the best and worst part of their day.

Here are some things that the neighborhood children are saying about Marks:

Sophie Blackwell (11) – “I like how she had Teddy Bear Day. We all brought our teddy bears to her home and played with them. We also had cookies and cupcakes and got to go swimming.”
Claire Blackwell (11) – “I like how she has sleepovers, fashion shows and how we get to make up dances and go swimming. She makes you always have a smile on your face and you don’t want to leave.”
Madison Schaus (10) – “She taught me how to ride a bike in the last two days. She is very fun, always has lots of holidays and is very creative.”
Paige Goodnight (10) – “I love her and coming over to her house. She made my summer great. She would never leave anyone out. She always throws good parties.”
Cate Searcy (11) – “She always has fun holidays even if no one else knows about them. She finds ways to make normal holidays very fun and unique with scavenger hunts and treats. One time she planned a surprise for my birthday with cupcakes and everyone sang “Happy Birthday” to me.”
The children aren’t the only ones inspired from Marks’ enthusiastic energy. “She is the most upbeat, positive friend who lifts you up,” says Crystal Blackwell, friend and former neighbor who also nominated Marks for the Geist contest. “She’s a remarkable role model and an inspiration as a working career woman who focuses on making time for her children and family.”

Marks’ adventurous spirit has attracted one special new friend this past year. She recently got engaged to Dr. Michael Dennis and is planning a wedding. With a mom like this in charge, this soon-to-be-family will inevitably make more unforgettable memories.

Too often, many of us stay busy in our lives without taking a moment to grasp the present and cherish those most important to us. Sometimes we may need a kick-start of inspiration to feel renewed as we face each day. Marks gives us hope to find strength when she says, “I live each day focused on being fully present with the incredible people I have been blessed with in my life. I look back with no doubts for the past, only excitement for what the future holds.”

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