Man to walk across U.S. for children's rights

By Kylee Dawson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, November 30, 2004

To raise money and awareness for the protection of abused children, Louis Michael Figueroa, a former world-class marathoner and walker, will walk 7,500 miles around the United States, beginning and ending in Tucson.

All proceeds from the walk will go to Justice for Children and Protect, two national child advocacy organizations which fight for the federal protection of abused, exploited and neglected children.

"There's no other place in the country that a parent could go to if the system is failing a child," Figueroa said. "Protect is the only political action committee (and) non-bipartisan lobby that works to help change the laws to protect children."

Having run across the country in 1982 to honor a bone cancer patient, and then walked across the country in 1996 for his brother, Jimmy, who died of AIDS, this will be Figueroa's final walk because, "I'm getting too old for this," he said. "I'm 38."

It has been reported that Figueroa was the inspiration for a scene in the 1994 film, "Forrest Gump," in which the title character runs back and forth across the country for three years.

However, Figueroa said the scene is not inspired by his actual run in 1982. Rather, it was Figueroa's quote, "When I got tired, I slept. When I got hungry, I ate. When I had to go to the bathroom, I went," which was stated in the film.

Figueroa, a leukemia survivor, was also the inspiration for the 1991 film "Dying Young," which was based on the Marti Leimbach novel. However, he said the character Victor Gaddes is a combination of Figueroa and two of his friends who lost their battle with leukemia.

Figueroa, a New Brunswick, N.J. native now living in Tucson, will begin his next walk Jan. 29 at Casa de Los Niņos, 1101 N. Fourth Ave., and end one-mile from the starting point.

He is asking volunteers to join him during the first and last mile of the walk, which, in all, should take roughly 10 months for Figueroa to complete.

"We need an infrastructure of volunteers to help do this right," Figueroa said. "The more the better. I want to see thousands of people walk the final mile because, even though my walk is finished, our work as a society to protect children continues."

A father of two, Figueroa said this walk is his most personal endeavor because he was sexually abused by a housekeeper from ages 7 to 14 but never told his parents.

"I was an abused child," Figueroa said. "That's why I left this walk for last. I'm doing this because I have a deep-seated hatred for pedophiles."

Figueroa said he was inspired to do the walk after reading portions of an autobiographical essay written by Andrew Vachss, an author and lawyer who specializes in juvenile justice and child abuse.

The line read, "There are far more humanitarians than exploiters but the exploiters are far more dedicated to their task."

After discussing the line and his personal abuse history with Vachss, Figueroa said he decided to actively do something to promote child protection laws.

With the help of Oprah Winfrey and others, Vachss helped initiate the National Child Protection Act of 1993, which was signed by former President Bill Clinton.

The Act enforces the national background check, an idea originated by Vachss, to assure parents that criminals are not caring for their children.

However, Figueroa said some states do not do enough to protect children from physical and sexual abuse, particularly incest.

"There are still 34 states in this country where a father, and I use the word 'father' loosely, can screw his own daughter and get probation," Figueroa said. Figueroa, who won the Los Angeles Marathon for his age division when he was 15, said he is currently in training for his approaching walk.

He is also in the process of gaining 40 pounds by eating whatever he wants because, "1,500 miles into the walk, I'll look skeletal," Figueroa said.

Figueroa will walk about 31 miles a day, which is equivalent to walking eight hours during an average workday, and stop for lunch and a quick leg massage before starting again.

Figueroa plans to have two assistants accompany him throughout the trip, including someone who goes to each town prior to his arrival to set up his lodging accommodations and contact the local media.

The second assistant will drive a mile ahead of Figueroa with his CDs, which Figueroa listens to on his discman during his walk. Some of his favorite artists and personal friends include Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Wynton Marsalis, and Rassan Paterson, who is composing theme music for the walk, Figueroa said.

"The boredom would kill you if you didn't have music," Figueroa said. "I couldn't do this without music."