Jules Burt embodies the essence of what it is to be a diva: The clothes, the shoes, the makeup, the accessories, the glamour and, of course, the attitude. However, the characteristic that makes Burt outshine even the brightest of diamonds is her enormous heart.
The Plant City based Pop artist first gained recognition through her contributions to set design on the popular NBC television series, “Friends.” Several of her original paintings, including the popular “Eight Cups of Coffee” were immortalized in the show’s iconic fictional coffee shop, Central Perk, and adorned the walls of the characters’ apartments.
Today, Burt’s acclaimed collectors include Elton John, Madonna, Katie Couric, Uma Thurman and several other celebrities. However, Burt’s commercial success as an artist is overshadowed by the magnitude of the charitable efforts she has turned her energy toward in the past several years.
It all began in 2004 when Burt had an inspiration for a fashionable fundraising event, which she dubbed the “High Heel Hike.” The event, which has been an ongoing tradition for eight years now, took place in Sarasota on Saturday morning, drawing out dozens of glamorous participants who, despite the gloomy weather came out to strut their “divalicious” stuff along the bay front from the Hyatt Regency to the Van Wezel.
The High Heel Hike, like Burt’s artwork, is simple, colorful and fun: Participants get dressed up in their most flamboyant clothing, accessorize to the nines, apply makeup and don their most glamorous pair of high heels – and then they go for a 1K walk.
“It was an idea that just kind of came out of my artsy head,” Burt explained.
Those divas may look like they’re on their way to a red carpet Hollywood awards ceremony, but they are actually everyday members of the community – mothers, friends, neighbors and business professionals – that are walking to raise money for a charitable cause.
For the first five years, Burt spread the funds raised by each High Heel Hike among a variety of charitable causes including Pediatric Cancer, Breast Cancer, the Easter Seals and the National Music Foundation. Overall, Burt’s High Heel Hikes have raised over $450,000 to date.
Starting in 2009, Burt turned the focus of the High Heel Hikes to one very important, yet often neglected cause, Autism.
According to the Center for Disease Control, Autism Spectrum Disorder occurs in one out of every 110 births. It is a lifelong neurological disability that affects an individual’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Restrictive interests and repetitive behavior are also common to autism, which generally surfaces in the form of developmental delays before the age of three.
Although she does not have any immediate family who have been diagnosed with autism, Burt is highly empathetic to the disability. Having been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as a child, Burt feels very much in tune with individuals and families who deal with developmental disabilities on a daily basis.
“I was always the child in the family who marched to a beat of a different drummer,” said Burt. “My mother was always my biggest backer. That’s why everything I do today, I dedicate to her.”
Burt’s mother passed away four years ago, at a time when the High Heel Hikes were gaining a great deal of attention from the community.
“By that point, moms were coming up and finding me and everything just clicked,” said Burt, whose close relationship with her own mother influenced her decision to turn her seemingly abundant energy toward promoting autism awareness and research funding.
In 2009, Burt became involved with Generation Rescue, an autism research and support organization that is headed by weight loss guru, Jenny Craig. Burt donated the proceeds from the High Heel Hikes to Generation Rescue, however, she was not fully satisfied with the concept of sending money that was raised locally to an organization based out of California.
“I decided that I wanted to make sure that the money raised in these events stayed in the local community,” said Burt.
In order to do this, she launched The Jules Burt Foundation, whose mission is to assure that at least 80% of the net proceeds from each High Heel Hike remain within the community in which the event takes place. Although she started out in Florida, Burt is working toward making the High Heel Hike a national movement.
The money raised at the High Heel Hike on Saturday is designated toward Community Haven for Adults and Children with Disabilities, Inc., a Sarasota-based organization that provides support and specialized programs for children, teenagers and adults with disabilities. Specifically, Community Haven provides services for early childhood intervention, work force development and employment opportunities, and community living.
Sponsors for Saturday’s event include Dr. Scot Lance, Macy’s, the Broadway Bar and Hyatt Regency.
Although the official count is still being tallied, the count on the Sarasota High Heel Hike webpage is currently at $12,667. A team of local divas who call themselves “The Blonde-tourage” raised the highest amount – an impressive $2,500 which far surpassed their $200 goal.
Blonde-tourage team leader and mother of a developmentally disabled child, Marion Morrall, was recognized as this year’s High Heel Hike Queen of Sarasota while her son, Bradley, was honored as king.
Burt said that after the event, she received a phone call from Morrall who said that she wished she could have a day like that with her son every day. Sentiments like that, Burt explained, are exactly the reason why she has chosen to devote her energy toward raising money for autism research and family support.
The bottom line of Burt’s intentions is to help families dealing with disabilities to lead better lives. She hopes that every mother and child can have the kind of relationship that she had with her mother.
“Moms are my bosses,” she said. “I answer to them. I do this for all of the amazing, beautiful mothers out there."