"People who truly struggle, they just want to be heard," Julia Roberts, who supports the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, tells PEOPLE

By Liz McNeil
Updated October 15, 2015 08:00 AM
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Credit: David Fisher/REX Shutterstock

Little did Julia Roberts know when a friend first told her about the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network that she’d end up auctioning off a lunch for them like her pal George Clooney – and would become a passionate supporter of the national organization that ensures safe and affirming schools for all kids, including all LGBT students.

In this week’s PEOPLE, Roberts, 47, reveals how she first heard about GLSEN: “My friend Dave Karger called to say ‘Hey, would you mind? George Clooney auctioned off a lunch to raise money for this event and I just said ‘Yes, of course, I would do the same. I hope you make a dollar!’

Not only did GLSEN make much more than a dollar, they made a friend and supporter in the Oscar-winning actress and mom of three.

“Ignorance is the root of any kind of discrimination and hatred and so the thing that’s great about GLSEN is that it’s about education,” she says. “The program [to raise awareness and support] goes from kindergarten through high school and I know from my kids that school is where all the power is. I was really blown away.”

“It all comes down to the simplest thing – to treat others the way you want to be treated,” says Roberts. “People that are truly, deeply unkind are the ones that lack any real knowledge of what they are talking about or who they are talking about.”

“People who truly struggle, they just want to be heard,” she says. “If you would just give them one little moment of your time and let them explain who they are and how they feel, it’s such a tiny graceful thing to offer anyone. And when they get that, the sky’s the limit.”

“As big and powerful as the bully tries to seem is as sad and pitiful as they truly are,” she adds. “It’s important to realize it has nothing to do with you but it actually has to do with the person being cruel and unkind and that is the person who has the confusion and the problems.”

Last year, Roberts and her husband, cinematographer Danny Moder, were honored by GLSEN with the Humanitarian Award for their work in the HBO movie The Normal Heart in which Julia played a physician dedicated to finding a cure for AIDS. Moder served as the director of photography.

Looking back on that night, the actress says it was the kids and their courage that made a lasting impression.

“When I was a teenager, I couldn’t put two sentences together in front of people I didn’t know well and they were all so well-spoken and warm, and have such a strong sense of who they are – and for some of them so hard-fought that it was like someone turned on the light switch,” she recalls. “The idea of speaking the truth about what is inside your heart – and that they are empowered by GLSEN and the programs they have put into schools to educate people – was just so hopeful.”

This year, she and her husband will serve as honorary co chairs for the group’s RESPECT awards in Los Angeles on Oct. 23. (The group is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.)

“I’m so glad the awareness has come into my life,” says the star. “I’m so happy it exists for kids today and for my kids as they are growing up. Regardless of if you have any sort of identity issues, what’s so great is that it promotes harmony.”

Asked about the impact of Caitlyn Jenner she says, “You can see the way Caitlyn Jenner has really kind of shaped all of us into a place of understanding – what she has gone through and is going through.

“It was truly a great social, cultural education she gave everybody,” she continues. “She’s educating all these people about her truth and when you’re really open in that way, it tells people who don’t necessarily know anyone like her to be accepting and open and those openings create channels for others to find the strength and the courage to say ‘This is how I feel and this is my experience.’ ”

And as for what her kids think of her involvement with GLSEN, she admits with a laugh: “My activities outside the house are a little uninteresting unless it’s going to soccer games, but certainly [we talk about] the concepts of kindness and understanding and appreciating differences. Children are so full of wonder and everything is about loving and being loved. They are the great teachers.”

For more on Julia Roberts and her support of the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday