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Julia Roberts may be one of the most instantly recognizable actresses in Hollywood, but as a child she suffered from an affliction shared by over 3 million other Americans. Along with her brother, Heroes star Eric Roberts, the actress was a chronic stutterer. But it was a disorder she fought to overcome, and now she is helping others overcome the frustrating complaint.

Born in Smyrna, Georgia, Roberts wanted nothing more than to be a veterinarian when she grew up. Her father, a professional vacuum cleaner salesman, was a keen amateur actor who met his wife, a real estate agent, through a local theater group. Acting and performing was a big part of family life in the Roberts’ household, and thespian pursuits soon rubbed off on the young Roberts children. The two older offspring soon headed to New York to pursue acting careers, but Julia stayed at home to attend university. However, the acting bug could not be suppressed, and upon graduation, Julia headed to the Big Apple to join her sister, actress Lisa Roberts Gillan.

But before she could break into show business, Roberts had to beat her stuttering problem. She did this through the support of her family and friends, and last week, along with her brother, was asked by the Stuttering Foundation of America to be a spokesperson for the group.

“It would be marvelous to have them participate,” said foundation representative Jane Fraser. “They have no doubt inspired young people with the problem.”

The late 80’s were a struggle for the young actress, although she began to build up a profile by appearing in shows such as Miami Vice and Sesame Street. But it was a role as a diabetic in Steel Magnolias that launched Roberts into the public eye and gave her the first of many Oscar nominations.

1990 saw the release of Pretty Woman, alongside Richard Gere, and another Oscar nomination. Her star rose to prominence throughout the next decade with roles in seven high-grossing films, such as Hook, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and Notting Hill. But it was her leading role in 2001’s Erin Brockovich that finally won her a Best Actress Oscar.

In 1995, Roberts expressed a desire to make her celebrity status mean something, and approached UNICEF to ask how she could make a difference in the world. The organization sent her to Port-au-Prince, the largest city in Haiti. It was a life-changing experience for the actress, and she found the poverty in the slums overwhelming. She later commented that her “heart was just bursting” at the sight of the children, many off whom were undernourished and homeless. Since then, she has visited many of the world’s poorest countries promoting peace, goodwill, and help for those in need.

In 2000, Roberts narrated a documentary film about Rett Syndrome, a rare disorder that can be fatal in young girls, and also represented the International Rett Syndrome Association in front of Congress in 2002.

“Congress has within its power the ability to provide the accelerated funding needed to increase our understanding of Rett syndrome,” she told a subcommittee of the House of Appropriations. “There is an urgent need now… to redouble the efforts of researchers and capitalize on their important and steadfast work.”

Roberts also sits alongside Paul Newman on the Board of Directors for the Hole in the Wall Gang, the world’s largest network of camps for ill children, and in 2007 she designed bracelets that were sold as part of Bono's Product (RED) Campaign.

In 2006, Roberts became the Advisory Board Chairperson for Earth Biofuels, a company set up in Mississippi in 2004 to implement clean-burning fuels on a nationwide scale. Her passion for the environment led her to join Board members Morgan Freeman and Willie Nelson in a crusade to encourage the use of biofuels in over 500,000 school buses.

“It’s very important that we expand our use of clean energy and make a long-term commitment to it,” she said. “Biodiesel and ethanol are better for the environment and for the air we breathe.The use of biodiesel is a positive step toward minimizing pollutive emissions and greenhouse gases. By focusing on school buses, we can affect the health and wellbeing of the people most susceptible to that pollution – our children – today.”

Roberts is currently starring in Charlie Wilson’s War alongside Tom Hanks, but perhaps it is a line from Erin Brockovich that best sums up her attitude towards the causes she supports:

“For the first time in my life, I got people respecting me – please don’t ask me to give it up.”

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