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Finding beauty in her family

Julie Winkle, Mrs. Santa Clarita Valley, is the founder of Noah’s Friends, which helps those in need

Posted: February 25, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: February 25, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Winkle with son Noah and husband Jack, who is the co-founder of Noah’s Friends.

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Some beauty queens seek fortune and fame. Julie Winkle, of Canyon Country, is looking for a platform to help families with autism.

As Mrs. Santa Clarita Valley, Winkle will compete in the Mrs. California United States pageant on April 10 in Thousand Oaks.

There’s the requisite gown and swimsuit competition, but what Winkle looks forward to most is the opportunity to speak about Noah’s Friends, the organization she founded with husband Jack Winkle.

Named after her son, Noah, who is autistic, Noah’s Friends seeks to provide resources such as health care referrals and one-on-one assistance from qualified care givers to families struck by the disorder.

Winkle is also hoping to provide inspiration to married couples, who can often be torn apart when their child is diagnosed with autism. “The divorce rate for such couples is 90 percent within five years of diagnosis,” said Winkle.  “You need to take the time to for yourself and your spouse to work on your marriage.”

The Winkles have been married for 16 years. Jack Winkle, who sells medical devices, is originally from Lancaster, while Winkle hails from Maine.

After marrying, they struggled with infertility for eight years and were considering adopting a special-needs child. “I have a real love for the sick and the lonely,” Winkle said.

Instead, Winkle finally became pregnant. After working as a flight attendant and in hospice care, Winkle became a stay-at-home mom when Noah was born, a role she relished.

When Noah was 2, the Winkles began noticing something was different about their son. He wouldn’t make eye contact and seemed standoffish compared to other children his age. Shortly thereafter, Noah was diagnosed with autism.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, it is estimated that an average of 1-in-110 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder, a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.

Symptoms can present themselves as significant language delays, social and communication challenges, and unusual behaviors and interests.

“One of the most difficult things for autistic children to do is to look at you. It took Noah four years to look at us. It can be painful. I’ve learned a lot of lessons,” Winkle said. “But Noah’s now one of cuddliest kids. He’s severely autistic, but he’s happy and healthy.”

At 11, Noah is a big boy, weighing 120 pounds. He loves to spend time in the family’s backyard, opting to sit in the Jacuzzi just about every day, rain or shine and enjoys jumping on the trampoline, which gives him an even better view of the surrounding mountains.

During the day, Noah attends Charles Helmers Elementary School in Saugus.

“It’s a bit of a drive, but it’s worth it. They have an autistic program and Noah’s doing well there,” Winkle said.

After school, Noah is responsible for chores such as picking up after the family dog, Daisy, a rescued German shorthaired pointer.

The Winkles receive help from Jamie Tracy, a live-in caregiver and full-time student at The Master’s College.
“She has a big heart. Noah loves her dearly and so do we,” Winkle said. “It’s nice to have three people to take turns with him.”

Nightly French fry runs to In-N-Out, at Noah’s insistence, are a family tradition, one that Winkle can no longer take part in as she prepares for the Mrs. California title.

“I’ve started eating extra healthy and made the conscious choice to change. That’s been the hardest part,” she said. “I bought ‘The Biggest Loser’ cookbook. I’ve had to change my food mindset from quick and easy to a little preparation and
healthy.”

Winkle is also hitting the gym six days a week, twice a day, in the mornings and evenings, as well as working with a pageant director on her presentation skills.

Finding her two gowns was not a problem for Winkle, who has a degree in fashion merchandising.

“The opening is a red cocktail dress, then I have a full-blown sequined aqua regalia,” she said. “After being a flight attendant for 10 years, I never thought I’d wear blue again.”

“I always told her she looked great in blue,” Jack Winkle said.

Since the Mrs. Santa Clarita Valley title is elected by a committee, rather than a competition, the Mrs. California contest will be Winkle’s first official pageant.

“Most of the women I’m competing against are in their late 20s or early 30s,” she explained. Winkle is 44, but looks younger, with her heart-shaped face, sparkling blue eyes and long blond locks.

“I may be biased, but I think Julie has a darn good shot,” Jack Winkle said. “I’m hoping if she can win, it will bring a focus to Noah’s Friends. It’s in our hearts, it’s a calling.”

In the midst of their hectic schedules, the Winkles are working on transforming Noah’s Friends from a business to a 501(c)3 nonprofit status. They started the organization to reach out to other families with autism.

“We want to help these children develop. We don’t want families to have to choose between good services and free services. As a non-profit, we won’t depend on people’s ability to pay,” Jack Winkle said.

“It might just be providing information to one family, such as referring a pediatric urologist who is willing to work with special needs children. For others, it might be providing one-on-one assistance with a skilled special needs caregiver,” Winkle said. “We envision Noah’s Friends as an all-encompassing organization. We go in not just as the founders, but as a husband and wife, to show it can be done as a couple.”

The Winkles have a regular date night every two weeks, which they cite as a key factor for a maintaining a strong relationship. Recently, they cruised around Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and enjoy going to other hotspots in Los Angeles.

“We’ve had wine at The Ivy, then went and had dinner at Subway,” Jack Winkle said with a laugh.

“People still ask us if we’re newlyweds,” Winkle said proudly. “I’ll keep doing the pageants, if it still allows me to be a wife and mother. Those are my priorities.”

For more information on Julie Winkle and Noah’s Friends, visit http://www.mrssantaclarita.blogspot.com/.

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