The adage that ‘looks can be deceiving’ springs to mind on meeting Julie Bartlett at her home in Gulf Harbour. With a view across the water to Shakespear Park, Julie’s environment resonates with her personality – quiet and unpretentious. But scratch beneath the surface and you discover a woman of passion and determination. Although Julie has received many awards for her charity work, including the New Zealand Order of Merit and the Auckland City Living Legend Award, she is not about to rest on her laurels. Her latest venture is an organisation called SOUL, which is helping to motivate young Kiwi women, as she explained to Jannette Thompson ….
The purpose of Soul – Sources Of Unconditional Love – is to empower young girls to be their own role models. The programmes enable the girls to form life-changing friendships, and are part of a worldwide campaign to make people re-think and dissolve prejudices. One in five women has experienced discrimination in NZ and on average; Kiwi women earn 88 cents to the dollar compared to men. We’ve heard people talk about the ‘glass ceiling’ constraining women’s ability to go beyond a certain point in their careers, but there is also something called the ‘sticky floor’. This is when young girls are constantly given messages undermining their confidence and self-belief, and as a result, they learn to constrain their own potential. Soul is an empowering programme for these young women. We have started with four groups of girls aged 15 to 18 and 18 to 20 years in Auckland, and two groups will soon start in Wellington. There are plans to roll the programme out to regional centres and younger age groups in future.
Whatever I do needs to have meaning – life’s too short to waste time on things you don’t relate to or aren’t passionate about. I think I probably learned this from my father. He worked as an Auckland accountant from Monday to Friday, but devoted a lot of his spare time to organisations such as the Salvation Army and Crippled Children, now known as CCS Disability Action. I had two brothers, and the younger one, Ross, was born with Downs Syndrome. He really was the inspiration behind StarJam, which my husband Roy and I founded in 2002. When Roy and I married, Ross gave a spontaneous speech at the reception. Up until then, most people had only heard him say a few words at a time. It was incredible how it changed people’s attitudes towards him; suddenly they started treating him as a normal person.
People with a disability still suffer massive discrimination. I know my brother suffered some terrible indignities and it is the same for anyone who is seen as being “different”. If you want to understand this, just hire a wheelchair for a day and you will see first-hand. You’ll find people being condescending or ignoring you, and even jeering at you. I’ve done it and was astounded at people’s behaviour. They will yell at you because they think that because you are in a wheelchair, you must be deaf! People will even talk to your carer rather than you because they make the assumption that you wouldn’t understand. But there’s no point in getting upset about it, you have to try to do something positive. That’s why I started StarJam – presenting people with disabilities in a positive light. Through music and performance workshops, the young people get to explore their talents, learn new skills and build confidence to try new things. It’s run nationally with more than 300 kids on the programme every week. I stepped aside from my role at chief executive in 2013.
Over the past 20 years I’ve worked either voluntarily or as a paid employee for a whole raft of organisations including hospice, the Alzheimer’s Foundation and the MS Society. It has involved working ridiculously long hours at times, flying up and down the country, and always operating on a shoestring budget. In my opinion, prejudice and discrimination are the key causes underlying all our major social ills, and we aren’t yet doing enough to address them.
I sometimes think my interest in helping people is a reflection of my generation. I grew up in the hippie era when life seemed full of boundless opportunities. After finishing school in Auckland, I spent four years backpacking through Europe, Asia and the Middle East. I had a great job in Switzerland one winter driving a horse and sleigh taxi, which financed my travels for a year. I picked grapes in France, slept on beaches in Greece and lived in a kibbutz in Israel for a year. That turned out to be a scary experience when I got caught up in the Arab-Israeli war in 1973. It was a shock to think someone wanted to kill me! My first husband was an Israeli who returned to NZ with me. We set ourselves up on 12 acres in the far north where we lived an organic and self-sufficient lifestyle for nearly 20 years and raised our son. We grew our own fruit and veges, milked goats and had a lot of fun, but it was hard work.
Roy and I met through our shared involvement in charity work and married in Cornwall Park in 1999. Roy is a trustee of Soul – and enjoys the privilege of being the only man on our board! He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1988 so we face an uncertain future. His type of MS is called relapsing-remitting, which means he can have an attack, lose some functionality and then either fully recover or have some residual effect. He’s cut down on work since we moved to the Coast a year ago and now uses a wheelchair, but otherwise he can still drive and is still independent. We used to visit the Coast regularly when we still lived in Auckland – there is a giant pohutakawa tree on Manly Beach which we’d refer to as our bach. My family also had a bach at Little Manly when I was a kid so I grew up holidaying here. We’re so glad we made the move – there are endless walks to do and if I need to go to Auckland, I can bike down to Gulf Harbour and catch the ferry. I’m also a volunteer guide on Tiritiri Matangi.
My husband doesn’t travel so much these days, but one country I love visiting over and over again is India. I’m interested in philosophy from a universal perspective and I often go to a retreat. I find India’s diversity of sights and sounds and smells also helps to puts things into perspective. As New Zealanders, we shouldn’t ever forget how lucky we are to live where we do. There are 250 million untouchables in India and if you think we have problems here, it is really nothing by comparison. While Soul is my priority at the moment, I look forward to the day that I can hand the leadership over to someone as passionate as me, so that I can spend more time with Roy, doing the things we love. A Grand Tour of the all best hot pools in the world would also be wonderful!