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Stilt walker is intent on raising money for state UCP “Walk for No Limits” initiative
When 29-year-old Neil Sauter is on his stilts, he sees his surrounding from a very different perspective. But one could say that’s always been the case because Neil has Cerebral Palsy.
Neil, who has received local and national media attention for fundraising activities for United Cerebral Palsy of Michigan that include walking on stilts that make him the equivalent of a 9-foot-tall performance artist, will tie up his most recent walk in Michigan this weekend.
When this year’s “Walk for No Limits” began in the Ann Arbor, Mich., area on April 12, Neil vowed to walk 400 miles to raise money for United Cerebral Palsy of Michigan, and for the most part, even a slight injury didn’t stop his slow, steady march forward.
“I had a hip flexor issue and couldn’t walk for a weekend, but that’s okay,” he said. “At the end of this I will have walked about 360 miles, and I still raised money for something I believe in.
“That’s the real goal – to be a role model,” said Neil. The walk averaging 22 miles per day, three days per weekend, for six weekends in a row will wrap on May 19 in Jackson, Mich.
“The first couple of days are really hard for me because I get a lot of blisters,” admitted Neil. “Once I get going I really enjoy it. It’s kind of a peaceful thing to do.”
This is not the first time Neil has strapped on his stilts for people with Cerebral Palsy. Five years ago, he walked 830 miles to raise money for the Michigan Assistive Technology Loan Fund. UCP of Michigan administers the fund. That effort generated about $85,000, including one-time matching funds from a federal program.
The ATLF loan program offers loans with favorable terms to people with disabilities that can be paid back over a longer term than a conventional bank loan allows. The loans can be secured for assistive technology devices, including scooters, hearing aids, vehicle modifications and home modifications.
Kathleen Brockel, the executive director of UCP Michigan, said the stilt-walking fundraiser is a unique one that sends a positive message on a number of levels.
“It’s not something you see every day,” she said. “For people with disabilities, it’s a powerful way to show perseverance. He’s out there walking the equivalent of a marathon three days a week, and I know that this year he faced some tough [weather] conditions [wind, cold, and rain]. But he’s achieved it and shows other people who they can meet their goals.”
UCP of Michigan is a non-profit advocacy organization that works for productivity, independence and full participation for people with Cerebral Palsy and other developmental disabilities. They report that 35,000 people in Michigan are living with Cerebral Palsy.
Reared in Blissfield, Mich., by his parents, Greg and Bev, Neil describes his case of Cerebral Palsy as slight. As a child, Neil walked with a slight limp. His calve muscles are constricted causing his feet to turn inward and his heels raise when walking.
“There were times I was made fun of because of the way I walked,” he said. “I was clumsy, but it didn’t stop me from participating in athletics like football when I was growing up. If anything, the CP was sort of a blessing because I was always thankful for what my body could do, instead of being upset about what I couldn’t do.”
His parents first considered the prospect that their son had Cerebral Palsy after a teacher suggested they look into it. At 15-years-old, he attended physical therapy, wore leg braces, and underwent surgery to release tension in his ankles during his primary school years.
“I really want to send the message that all people can rise above their challenges and that everybody deserves the accommodations they need to be independent and be successful.”
– Neil Sauter
“I hope that I can do it every year because it helps a lot of people, and even though I don’t need assistive equipment, a lot of people with Cerebral Palsy do need some help. And, I want to show that if I can use stilts all the way across Michigan, imagine what someone with a wheelchair can do if they have it!”
– Neil Sauter
He went on to receive a scholarship from Michigan Rehabilitation Services that helped him pay for college. At Grand Valley State University, Allendale, Mich., Neil earned a Bachelors of Science in psychology. He also is just shy of obtaining a Masters degree at Michigan State University, Lansing, Mich., in environmental science.
“I got a scholarship in college because I have Cerebral Palsy and I wanted to do something to pay back that money,” Neil said, admitting he had no idea at the time on how he could make that happen.
One day, a few years before his first 800-mile stilt trek, Neil met a stilt walker at a local fair, and curiosity converged with a desire to give back.
“The silt walker showed me how they (stilts) work, and because I have a tendency to walk on my toes and not the ball of my feet, the stilts were easy for me,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘This is kind of like a brace. I can do this.’”
Stilt walking requires the walker to strap their feet in tightly and keep their heels grounded and straight. For Neil, that means walking in the stilt is easier than walking on his feet.
“For most people walking on stilts would be harder than regular walking,” said Neil. “For me, I’m much more coordinated on stilts than I am on my own two feet.
“It was just like the brace I use to wear and I thought I’d probably walk pretty well in those things,” he said. “ My feet turn inward when I walk and when I’m on stilts it straps your foot in and it holds it perfectly straight. Stilts are like an accommodation, they help me walk straighter than I would otherwise.”
It wasn’t long before he planned his first charity walk.
“The reason I chose to raise money for their charity is they provide people with disabilities loans, they provide wheelchairs, communication devices … whatever they need to be independent and to be successful,” Neil said.
“I really want to send the message that all people can rise above their challenges and that everybody deserves the accommodations they need to be independent and be successful,” Neil said. “And, also that people should stand up for what they believe in no matter what that is.”
Stilt-walking for charity is something that Neil believes can create awareness and goodwill.
“I hope that I can do it every year because it helps a lot of people, and even though I don’t need assistive equipment, a lot of people with Cerebral Palsy do need some help,” he said. “And, I want to show that if I can use stilts all the way across Michigan, imagine what someone with a wheelchair can do if they have it!”
It comes back
Meeting people, Neil said, has been the best part of walking for a cause.
“The people that I’ve met have been very kind, especially the children,” he said. “I’ve met many wonderful people, especially the children that have CP that have told me of their struggles. And they want to be my friend.
“I’ve been offered food, and places to sleep, during my walks,” Neil added. “To say people have responded to my efforts positively would be an understatement.
“Complete strangers allowed me to stay at their homes in the evenings or purchase hotel rooms on my behalf. It was an incredible display of kindness and generosity. Imagine a world in which you can place complete trust in everyone you met. It was incredible,” Neil said. During his walks, strangers would stop to talk, shake his hand, take pictures with him, and offer donations.
He has a lot of advice to offer people with Cerebral Palsy and other disabilities, some of which he’s shared with people he’s met on his travels through Michigan.
“I always tell people to appreciate your movement, no matter what it is,” he said. “I can’t tell people how important it is to move.”
He also tells people to give back when and if they can.
“I’ve had some good fortune, and I try to do what I can to give back to others because there was someone that was willing to help me,” he said. “I try to always pay it forward.”
Neil also tells young people at speaking engagements, motivational performances and school assemblies that they should never count themselves out.
“I was once made fun of because of the way I walked,” he said. “But today, I’m one of the best walkers around. I’ve set walk records for walking marathons on stilts – I can do a marathon in six hours – and I’ve been on ‘Ripley’s Believe it, or Not!’”
Today, Neil is a stay-at-home dad when he’s not on his stilts. He lives with his wife, Kelly, who is a social worker, and his 15-month-old son, Banks, in Deerfield, Mich. When he finishes his walk on May 19, Neil estimates he will have raised a donation of about $6,000. In future years, he hopes he can earn even more to help others obtain the assistive equipment they require for employment and enjoyment.
Join Neil on May 19
If you live in Michigan and would like to visit with Neil on May 19, he has the following scheduled appearances:
12 noon – United Methodist Church in Concord to hear a presentation about his trip.
1:00 p.m. – Falling Waters Trail Head in Concord to walk alongside Neil.
6:30 p.m. – Bob Evans on Michigan Avenue in Jackson for his final dine to donate appearance.
For more information on Neil, visit:
Watch Neil on his journey across Michigan
To donate to the UCP of Michigan’s “Walk for No Limits” program in honor of Neil Sauter’s efforts, text CPWalk to 72727 or visit “Walk for No Limits”
To book Neil for entertainment, visit:
As we grow and mature into adulthood we’re bound to have goals that may not seem to be attainable, or dreams we hope come true. While goals and dreams can be grandiose or simple depending on an individual’s personality and temperament, Cerebral Palsy is not an impediment to an exciting, and ultimately rewarding, life.
- Joe’l Ash – Overcoming Adversity
- Mike Berkson – Handicap This!
- Desaray Carroll – Receiving Recognition
- Rachel Chiapparine – Addressing Stereotypes
- Karen Lynn Chlup – Stretching Barriers
- Shevitta Collins – Accepting Outcomes
- Abbey Curran – Creating Confidence
- Robert Fayz – Funding Reductions
- Jon Gilroy – Transitioning to College
- Daniel Keplinger – Painting from Within
- Priscilla Morrison – Remembering Family
- Neil Sauter – Paying Forward