Ms Wilkinson has been at the forefront of advocacy for people with disabilities for three decades. From 1999 until 2003, she was the national services coordinator for Parent to Parent before becoming chief executive, a role she held until early 2016.
As Parent to Parent chief executive, Ms Wilkinson was responsible for the management of 11 branch offices across New Zealand and Parent to Parent’s support and information service. Throughout her tenure with Parent to Parent, she built on the work of predecessor Shirley Wass as Parent to Parent developed from a small group formed by a handful of parents and professionals in 1983 into a nationwide organisation with a large staff and a network of more than 600 volunteers.
“This was a huge and unexpected surprise. It is very much shared with some incredible people I have had the privilege of learning from and working with, presently and over many years, and the contribution and support of my family in everything I have pursued. While I do not feel worthy of an award, I do appreciate having our work over many years acknowledged,” Ms Wilkinson said.
Her role at Parent to Parent saw Ms Wilkinson facilitating partnership relationships with other disability organisations, and in a joint venture with Life Unlimited, she was an integral part of the team that established the support and advisory service Altogether Autism in 2007, where she remains in a strategic management role.
Ms Wilkinson was also a member of the Ministry of Health’s New Model National Reference Group, is a former Community Living Trust board member, and has been involved with the Enabling Good Lives project since its inception, where she is still a member of the organisation’s national leadership group.
Originally from Carterton in the Wairarapa, Ms Wilkinson started her working life as an assistant social worker for the then Department of Social Welfare in the mid-1970s.
Parent to Parent had been established in Auckland in 1983 and her association with the group began with the diagnosis of one of her four children, about 30 years ago. “We had noticed unusual behaviour. She wasn’t assessed until she was four years old and we had expected the professionals to be able to fix the issues. So we were shocked when the psychiatrist at Waikato Hospital told us that she had autism and that it wasn’t going to go away. From there, we were referred to the Community Living Trust’s behaviour assessment team,” Ms Wilkinson said.
It was from this experience that she began to develop an appreciation of, and empathy for, the grieving process experienced by parents of children with disabilities and the need to alleviate the feeling of isolation by bringing parents together and allowing them to share their common experiences.
The driving force behind her dedication to the disability sector though, has always been her strong belief that people with a disability have the same rights as others to have control over their lives, and that families are an integral part of achieving this. And over the years, there is no doubt that Ms Wilkinson has worked tirelessly to achieve just that.