Men don heels for Harbor House fundraiser

Men and women slipped on their highest heels for a walk through downtown Orlando to raise awareness of domestic violence.

Men and women slipped on their highest heels for a walk through downtown Orlando to raise awareness of domestic violence.

Tim Freed

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Orlando resident Rob Best came prepared as he arrived outside the Orange County Courthouse. He stood outside the 24-story building last summer for the same purpose. He brought a box of Band-Aids this time.

Several heads turn as he plods through a crowd of locals, smiles spreading across their faces.

Best’s green, plaid kilt might seem like the only attention getter at first, but a look down past his hirsute legs reveals the real culprit: a pair of black, lacy, 5-inch heels – his pale feet bandaged on the toes and heels to fend off blisters.

“I had a lot of girls asking me ‘Where’d you find those?’” he laughed, gingerly walking toward the front of the group.

Best wasn’t at the courthouse for jury duty; he was there to support a cause.

More than 300 Central Florida residents took to the streets of downtown Orlando in style Friday for the second annual Walk a Mile in Her Shoes Orlando event – a fundraiser bringing awareness of domestic violence while supporting the Harbor House of Central Florida, an Orlando shelter.

Fashion-forward gents sporting flashy heels walked from the Orange County Courthouse to the Orange County Regional History Center, waving picket signs reading ‘Real men walk the walk’ and ‘Change starts with one step.’

The walk puts a strong emphasis on participation from men, who made up 60 to 70 percent of this year’s group, Harbor House Chief Executive Officer Carol Wick said

“Domestic abuse affects one in three women globally,” Wick said. “If we’re going to solve domestic abuse, we have to engage men. Most men don’t commit acts of domestic violence, but they also are not asked to help intervene and help prevent it, so that’s what we’re doing today. We’re asking them to step up and help us.”

The sponsored walkers raised $25,000 for the Harbor House of Central Florida, paying for 1,500 nights of safety at the shelter, Wick said, or roughly 33 individuals and families staying an average of 45 days.

Harbor House of Central Florida provides counseling and community outreach as well, building up women and children suffering in their household.

Trucks and cars blared their horns in support as the volunteers walked south along Orange Avenue, east along Livingston Street and farther south along Rosalind Avenue before finally reaching the History Center on Central Boulevard.

“I had a great time last year and I think it’s an awesome cause,” Best said. “The challenge of walking a mile in high heels is nothing compared to what those women and children go through.”

Shoes worn ranged from the stylish to the outlandish. Orlando City Soccer Club President Phil Rawlins put away his soccer cleats for the day in favor of a pair of knee-high heeled boots, customized with plastic purple jewels and ‘OCSC’ in glittery letters.

“It’s a fabulous event,” Rawlins said. “It’s an event that I know a lot of our fans were involved in last year and I’m delighted to help and raise money for a good cause.”

Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke took a more conservative approach with his shoes, wearing a pair of classic black heels for the walk.

“Anything we can raise and any awareness we can bring to it, I’m for it,” said Clarke, showing up for his second year. “I’ll wear heels, I’ll wear hats, I don’t care just as long as we can raise some money and make folks aware of it, because it’s just a heinous crime.”

Domestic violence continues to run rampant in Central Florida. Orange County saw 9,300 911 calls related to domestic violence in 2012, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. More than 5,000 of the 911 calls resulted in arrests.

Between 20 and 25 deaths occur each year in Orange County related to domestic violence, according to records kept by the Harbor House of Central Florida.

Apopka resident Tammy Williams had someone in particular in mind when she slipped on a pair of heels Friday. Yvonne Booth graduated with Williams from Apopka High School in 1992, remaining close friends with her for more than a decade after.

But on Feb. 2, 2003, Booth’s life was cut short.

Her husband Anthony Kirkland took their abusive relationship to an extreme when he held her hostage in a hotel room on International Drive for 24 hours.

Kirkland eventually shot Booth dead before killing himself.

Williams said the she’ll continue walking each year in honor of her friend.

“I just think everyone needs to watch for the telltale signs,” said Williams, holding a memorial sign reading “Yvonne Booth: Our Angel.”

“You’ve got to be aware. It’s not acceptable at all.”

Friday felt both somber and hopeful for Orlando resident Kathy Batista. The images of a horrific shooting at a Casselberry hair salon remained as imprinted on her mind as the woman’s face on her purple T-shirt.

The woman is Gladys Cabrera, Kathy’s mother. They both stepped inside Las Dominicanas M&M Hair Salon two years ago in October, when a girls’ day out would end in tragedy.

Owner Marcia Santiago suffered from an abusive relationship with boyfriend Bradford Baumet, who stormed into the business moments later and shot Santiago and three other women, including Cabrera.

Santiago was the only victim who survived the shooting, despite being hit six times.

Batista has since started an awareness group in her mother’s name, joining events related to fighting domestic violence, which had indirectly taken her mother’s life.

“I’m here today because I have to represent her and keep her name alive – I don’t want anyone to suffer the pain that I’m still suffering after two years,” Batista said.

“Events like this make it worthwhile, because they’re not here to speak for themselves … we’re representing them.”