Lee Thomas's vitiligo support group celebrates 10 years

- FOX 2 is helping a member of our family celebrate a significant milestone. 

V-Strong, the vitiligo support group founded by Lee Thomas, is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Lee founded the group with Dr. Henry Lim of Henry Ford Hospital. 

The people in the group love and appreciate Lee so much, they reached out to FOX 2 for our help to surprise Lee at their meeting Thursday night. Of course we sent a camera to catch the surprise and the celebration. You can watch in the video player above. 

When Lee started the support group in 1997, there weren't others like it and no one was even really talking about vitiligo. Lee now travels around the world telling his story and meeting with others who have vitiligo. 

As Lee explains, having vitiligo means you lose pigment in your skin. 

"It's an autoimmune disease, and your body attacks its pigment cells," he says. "It can happen to anybody; there's people of all nationalities in our group, but for people with darker skin it just really looks very different. Like, my hands. I never cover my hands; people with vitiligo can see that. I put makeup on my face because I don't want to distract people when I'm talking, but, I do want people to see it."

The support group came about when a viewer called FOX 2 one morning and asked if Lee could speak to her son, who has vitiligo. At the end of the conversation, the boy asked if Lee would show his face without makeup on TV so people might treat him differently. 

Lee accepted the challenge and also spoke about his vitiligo on TV, and the news story brought about Lee's book, "Turning White," and the eventual beginning of V-Strong. 

Lee explains vitiligo, unfortunately, can bring about all sorts of psychological and emotional effects -- and he's heard about many firsthand.  

"I was over in Europe talking and I met this lady who was of Arabic descent. She got vitiligo; [ she had a] husband and two kids. Her husband kicked her out of the house and said, 'Don't ever come back here.' Because she had vitiligo. I hear stories like that as I go around the globe," he told us Friday on The Nine. 

He said one time he met a lady once who hadn't left the house in two months because of her vitiligo, and that her brother finally dragged her to one of Lee's meeting. 

Lee says one of the best things he's seen, though, is the change of personality in a little boy who has vitiligo. 

"This little boy, probably five [years old], from the first meeting he came to he would not speak at all. He'd hide behind his mother. At the end of the meeting [Thursday] he grabbed me around the waist and gives me a big hug and says, 'We gotta go to Subway,'" Lee said. 

He says one time he was even recognized at an airport in Germany because the man's sister had vitiligo. 

"Just some emotional stuff that I never expected when I told this kid, sure, I'll show my face on TV if it helps you. And I never expected all this stuff would happen."

V-Strong meets six times a year on the second Thursday of the following months: January, March, May, July, September, November. Meetings are held at New Center One: 3031 W Grand Blvd, Detroit, MI 48202 on the 7th Floor. Meetings are 6pm - 8pm and dinner is provided.  

The group celebrated their 10th anniversary on November 9, 2017 during the last meeting of the year for 2017. 

If you'd like more information about V-Strong, visit www.vitiligostrong.com

You can get more information on Lee's book, "Turning White: A Memoir of Change" on Amazon.com

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