LAMBERTVILLE - Early yesterday, Neil Sauter stepped over the last student at New Bedford Academy. He kissed his grandmother goodbye and set off on an 830-mile trek that he hopes will raise awareness about cerebral palsy.
Mr. Sauter plans to travel across Michigan atop a pair of 3-foot aluminum stilts. His send-off was held at the K-8 charter school, where his father is principal.
In an exuberant ceremony, students lined up while the 25-year-old college instructor - who has a mild case of cerebral palsy - used his stilts to travel over the students' bodies and heads. With his fiancee by his side, Mr. Sauter walked down the road with students chanting, "Let's go, Neil."
The lifelong Blissfield resident intends to travel 20 miles per day for eight weeks to Ironwood, Mich., on the Wisconsin state line, carrying a 40-pound backpack. His bride-to-be, Kelly Riley, isn't scheduled to make the trip with him, leaving Mr. Sauter to stay with friends, camp, and stop at schools along the way to spread the word about overcoming disabilities.
Along with stilt-walking, Mr. Sauter's act includes juggling and balloon animals. He began his elevated entertainment career about 18 months ago at Blissfield's annual River Raisin Festival. In October, he walked the 26.2-mile course of the Grand Rapids marathon on stilts.
"I want to inspire kids to rise above challenges," Mr. Sauter said. "Anyone with disabilities can be successful, if they have the right tools."
Meanwhile, he's raising money for United Cerebral Palsy, a nonprofit organization that supports people with disabilities. The money will be used to purchase wheelchairs for those diagnosed with the disorder. Every dollar he raises will be matched by $2 in federal grant money through the cerebral palsy organization.
"If having stilts helps me get across the state, imagine what having a wheelchair will do for someone else," he said.
Between 1.5 million and 2 million people nationwide have cerebral palsy, a disorder caused by damage to the portion of the brain that controls muscle functioning. Damage can occur during pregnancy, during birth, or in infancy and has a range of causes, Pam Schuster, a program manager with United Cerebral Palsy Michigan, said.
People with cerebral palsy may exhibit a range of symptoms from muscle tightness to difficulty swallowing and problems with speech, Ms. Schuster said.
Mr. Sauter said he's always been athletic but has had to be extremely disciplined because of the disorder, which causes his ankles to bend inwards.
As a boy, he always was falling down, said his father, Greg Sauter. "We didn't know that he had it," the elder Mr. Sauter said. "He was always very clumsy and klutzy."
But his son never wanted to be treated differently, the elder Mr. Sauter said. After the diagnosis, Mr. Sauter underwent several surgeries.
He went on to play football and run track in high school. However, he still sprains his ankle rather frequently, he said.
"Physically, I've had to work extra hard to be successful," Mr. Sauter said. "My legs just aren't as strong as the average person."
He works as an adjunct lecturer in the psychology department at Jackson Community College.
People using wheelchairs may do things differently, but they are capable of great things, Mr. Sauter said.
"A lot of people who have cerebral palsy use a wheelchair," he said.
"Just because you use a wheelchair doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you."
He will travel through Lansing, Grand Rapids, Cadillac, and Cheboygan; then he will take the Mackinac Island Ferry to the Upper Peninsula. The second phase of his journey will take him from Marquette to Ironwood.
"It should be quite a challenge," he said.
Mr. Sauter's progress can be tracked at www.stiltstory.org.
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