by Leonard A. McHugh
Before I became a guide dog user, I thought that it was impractical to participate in a charity walk as a cane traveler. After receiving my first guide dog, I thought it would be nice to participate in a charity fund-raising walk. But I usually learned about them after the fact or could not make arrangements to attend. Then I read a news article about an interesting charity walk that would take place on April 28, 2011. It was to support the the Sexual Assault Resource & Counseling Center (SARCC) of Schuylkill County. The program was named Walk a Mile in Her Shoes, where men would wear women's high heels. Since it was to be held downtown, in Pottsville, and wouldn't be a very long walk, I was sure it would be an event in which I would be able to participate using a guide dog.
Before I contacted SARCC, I went to the experts. I sent an e-mail to the "friends" mailing list for Guide Dog Users, Inc. with the subject line, "a question for the ladies." My question was, "Do you ever wear high heels while working a guide dog?" And I explained the event. The responses were equally split. Half of the ladies told me no and gave several reasons why one should not wear high heels while walking with a guide dog; the other group gave me a lot of tips. The one that really got my attention was "No! No! No! spike heels." Other advice included "nothing over two inches high." High heels were described as evil and detriments to safety. One other valuable piece of advice was to wear high heels while working the dog before the event. Since my gait would be different, Toga had to learn how to walk with me in my new clicking shoes.
After walking in the house for a few days to learn how to balance with these very noisy shoes, I migrated to the back alley late at night when no one was around. My wife walked with me and could not stop laughing. It was amazing how loud they were. I felt like an unsuccessful cat prowler in high heels.
I visited several shoe stores while trying to find a pair of women's shoes. I can only imagine the looks I got. Before I hit the shoe stores, I had posted a message on a local Freecycle list looking for ladies' size 9 medium shoes -- not spikes and no more than two-inch heels! I even explained why I wanted them. I did not receive any offer of shoes. However, I did receive this very touching note:
"Hi Lenny, how are you? I don't have any women's shoes for you, but I want to say how much I appreciate your participating in the walk. … Years ago, my daughters and I were helped by a similar organization in another state. It was transformative and saved us. We marched in an event to raise awareness of the epidemic of violence against women, and one of the speakers said something that made my spirit sink. She said that, until men of goodwill speak out, this trend will continue. I thought at the time, 'Then we are forever preaching to the choir. It will never change. Men stick together. They cover for each other and never talk about this. The good guys are too mild-mannered to confront this.' My girls were 5 and 6 at the time, and my hope for their future was dimmed. I looked at the little boys in their classes and wondered who among them would be the next generation of abusive men. Now, more than 20 years later, the day has come where real men are not just taking that stand, but are doing it in a very public, creative and positive way. That is amazing! And it's happening right here! I hope I get to meet you. I'm proud of you and very grateful."
Later, when I contacted the staff at the local SARCC office and told them of my interest in the program, they were very pleased. I made a few friends out there. I decided that I would have to raise a minimum of $100 to make my personal humiliation worthwhile. The first day, I raised $45 and I heard one real horror story. A woman whom I have known for only a few months thanked me for doing this. She then told me her story. About 15 years ago, while she was at home with her young kids, someone broke into her home, and she was raped. I came out with watering eyes and decided then and there to do it no matter what I collected. Then I met another woman with another horrifying story who is currently using the local SARCC services. After that, I was even more motivated. I decided that not only would I participate, but I would be the highest fund-raiser. I ended up raising $1,354 in a little over three weeks.
The walk was more fun than I could have ever imagined. There were a total of 95 registered walkers. Before the walk actually began, there were a few speakers. They mentioned the top fund-raisers. I did not even know if I had met my goal. So many people that I contacted told me that George Moyer, an old friend, was already there. I kept doing my best to get pledges. They announced my friend as receiving $806 in pledges. That is when I knew that I met my goal. The crowd of walkers and family supporters went wild when they said my name with a total of $1,344. I collected another $10 after the event. George and I were positioned right up front near the bagpipe player. Toga was a little uncomfortable with the pipes and did not hear all of my commands so I backed off, missing the chance to get my picture in the paper with George.
There was a party at Maroon's Sports Bar after the walk. Each registered walker received a ticket for a drink. There was a lot of food provided for everyone who walked, including for family members and supporters. Then they gave three awards: one for the best poised, one for the ugliest shoes and the grand prize. I had no idea that I would win for the best poised! The prize was a beautiful Pandora bracelet with a charm of a woman's high heel. (Karen let me wear it for about an hour so I could show people!) That bracelet is now hers and I know that she will always treasure it. I credit my Freedom Guide Dogs trainer and Toga for my poise while walking. When working Toga I am very aware of my posture. During training with my first guide, my posture was corrected several times.
My shoes were yellow peep-toe pumps with a one-and-a-half-inch heel and a cute bow. My wife, Karen, did a fantastic job of dressing them up. She carefully stuck iridescent rhinestones around the shoe and on the yellow bow across the front. They looked so professional that some girls later asked me where I purchased them. Karen also took some yellow ribbon that matched Toga's bow, tied it carefully around my ankle and secured more iridescent rhinestones to it. I got a lot of compliments. For Toga, I placed a nice yellow bow on her harness and a sign that I made on the computer. The first line read "SARCC" in large red letters. The next line, written in a little smaller black type, read "WALK A MILE." The third line, written in pink, said "IN HER SHOES."
Since Toga was all decked out, she had to have her toenails painted. And since I was wearing open-toe shoes, I needed to match her. Karen's hairdresser loaned me some polish. It was a bright pink-red, and then we added a top coat of gold shimmer.
I will forever be grateful to my friends who donated to the cause. Sheila Styron sent a very generous $50 donation when she read what I was doing on the list. Another friend, Rev. Marianne Unger, wanted to see some pictures. When we e-mailed her the photos, she laughed and told me that she would send $100 for SARCC. She went on to say that when she sees a video, she will send another $100 to Freedom Guide Dogs. My physician, Dr. Phillip Tobash, laughed so hard when I told him about the project; then he wrote a check for $100 just for seeing me walk in high heels.
Krista Klinger sent me this message: "Hi Lenny, What a great cause. I admire you and every man that takes on the challenge. You can count me in for $50. …"
Talking to some of the SARCC staff members on my way out of Maroon's, I said that, if I were to do this next year, I could never reach that dollar amount again. I was promptly corrected with, "'If' is not part of that statement!"
Well, now I know that they are correct. While writing this, I contacted George to make sure I could use his name. He told me that there are people who team up together to do the walk. We agree: What would make a better team than two old friends who were the top fund-raisers for the first annual walk?
I believe that most women would not wear the same outfit to repeating events. Karen just may have to make room in her closet for my next pair of sexy shoes. All joking aside, I am grateful to everyone who made a pledge. Any thoughts of embarrassment or humiliation very quickly changed to a wonderful sense of pride. I sure hope that the little part Toga and I played will help to make a difference.
Here is one final thought which Krista Klinger sent to me: "Isn't it amazing how one act (i.e., your intention to try to raise $100 for the cause) has such a ripple effect? These two quotes come to mind ... 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.'--Margaret Mead
"'Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope ... and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.'--Robert F. Kennedy"
To see photographs and videos of the SARCC event, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5ywF39uuds.