LINCOLN Form his perch on six-foot stilts, Neil Sauter had a lofty agenda Friday for the youngsters looking up at him from the gymnasium floor at Alcona Community Elementary School.
During a 45-minute presentation, the boyish 30-year-old taught students that they should set goals for themselves and be willing to overcome obstacles that are always in the way.
"You need to have a goal and you're going to face problems trying to accomplish those goals," he said. "So you have to come up with solutions."
News Photo by Betsy Lehndorff
Neil Sauter high-fives students at Alcona County Elementary School after a recent performance.
To drive the idea home, Sauter, a former mental health worker, had the children act out several fun scenarios. Then as they exited the gym, he high-fived them and let them walk through his legs.
It is the same message his parents, Greg and Beverly Sauter, told him when he was a youngster affected by a mild case of cerebral palsy. The physical disability is caused by a lesion in the developing brain and can affect a person's ability to walk and move. In severe cases, the handicap causes shaky movements, spasms, pain and growth issues, and can impair speech.
"My natural walking motion is very flat footed and pigeon-toed," Sauter said. Yet, through encouragement Sauter became an athlete and accomplished student.
Winning a disability grant, Sauter attended Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, and in 2007, while learning to juggle for fun he met a stilt walker.
"The man told me I'd have to keep my heels down and couldn't turn my ankles, and the stilts were like some braces I wore," Sauter said.
Although he fell numerous times, he eventually mastered the skill and his gait morphed itself into a money making asset.
"I'm able to be on them longer and am more comfortable than most stilt walkers," he said.
In 2008, Sauter starting walking long distances, completing an 830-mile stint around Michigan sponsored by Ripley's Believe It Or Not. The company provided him with several pairs of stilts that he wore out. They also publicized his achievement.
Sauter said he uses drywaller stilts that cost around $300 a pair.
He also began raising money for United Cerebral Palsy, and has given them over $90,000 so far. That figure doesn't include $500 the elementary students raised for him Friday. And over at the high school, the local PTO, which had invited him, was still counting donations.
Eventually Sauter was able to quit his job in mental health and became a stay-a-home dad when his son, Banks, was born two years ago. While his wife, Kelly, works as a social worker, Sauter is out and about making over $20,000 a year as a weekend entertainer.
Sauter said he is grateful to his parents, who encouraged him to improve his gait. He also quickly realized how lucky he had been to have a mild case of the disability after seeing others struggle with the handicap.
"Because I got the disability grant, I wanted to pay that forward, so I've been raising the money for UCP," he said.
Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.