MDA Matters March-April 2007

by Alyssa Quintero on March 1, 2007 - 10:32am

QUEST Vol. 14, No. 2

Featured in this article: 15th anniversary of MDA Art Collection, National Task Force, and Personal Achievement Award ** Olympic swimmer to host bash for MDA/Augie's Quest ** Heartsongs gala to feature Asia

Happy anniversary!

Three MDA programs created in 1992 — the MDA Art Collection, the National Task Force on Public Awareness and the Personal Achievement Award — are observing their 15th anniversaries this year, as they continue to evolve and thrive.

The late Robert Ross, MDA’s longtime president & CEO, developed the three programs after MDA relocated its national headquarters from New York to Tucson, Ariz. By highlighting the abilities of people with disabilities, these three initiatives also are helping to educate the public about people living with neuromuscular diseases, and honoring their personal and professional accomplishments.

“The message behind these programs is simple, yet important…. Disability doesn’t diminish ability, creativity, independence, leadership, talent or will to succeed,” said MDA Vice President of Community Programs Michael A. Blishak, who directs the three activities. “MDA’s artists, Task Force members and achievement award recipients serve as tremendous role models for others with disabilities, and they’ve opened doors to greater opportunities.”


Ross created the Collection for three reasons, Blishak said: to honor the people served by MDA, to showcase their creativity and talent, and to decorate the new headquarters building, which opened in 1992.

Today the Collection features more than 330 original works by adults and children with neuromuscular diseases, from ages 2 through 82, and from every state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Artists have donated pieces in traditional oils, watercolors, acrylics, pen and ink, crayons, pastels, bronze, ceramics and photography, as well as some unusual media, such as digital designs, collages with corn and found objects, and paint applied with wheelchair wheels and human feet. The first piece in the Collection was a construction paper collage called “Amusement Park,” submitted by a 9-year-old with Becker muscular dystrophy.

Lining the walls of MDA’s national headquarters, the artwork features subject matter ranging from self-portraits, landscapes and still lifes to outer space fantasies.

Selected MDA Art Collection pieces travel the country, having appeared in some 70 exhibits in 44 cities. Blishak calculates that the Collection has traveled over 125,000 miles and been viewed by more than 3 million people.

The anniversary celebration includes a five-month exhibit called Transcending Barriers, at the Children’s Museum of Houston March 9 through July 29, featuring some 30 children’s works. For exhibit hours and directions, call (713) 522-1138.

MDA also plans to hold an open house at its national headquarters this year.


The National Task Force on Public Awareness is an essential part of MDA’s ongoing effort to promote independence, awareness and leadership for the people MDA serves.

The 12 members of the advisory body, all affected by neuromuscular diseases, are professionals and community leaders. Since its creation, 47 people have served on the Task Force, including educators, lawyers, writers and engineers. In addition to the national group, many MDA chapters have local task forces on public awareness.

Task Force members make public appearances and give media interviews to help educate the public about MDA’s programs, and take a stance on issues affecting people with disabilities.

“The Task Force has taken the lead in educating the public about living with a disability, as well as supporting efforts to provide equal rights and opportunities to people with disabilities,” Blishak said.

The National Task Force is led by steering committee members William Altaffer, an attorney in Tucson, Ariz.; Jan Blaustone, a teacher and writer in Nashville, Tenn.; Mike Neufeldt of New Berlin, Wis., who works in interactive communications for Harley-Davidson; and Christopher Rosa of Flushing, N.Y., University Director for Student Affairs at the City University of New York.

The members also serve as the eyes and ears of the Association, advising MDA on matters of importance to people with disabilities, including medical care, insurance, independent living, personal assistance services and legislation.

For example, in October, the steering committee wrote to U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Sciences Michael Leavitt urging that he delay implementation of a new policy that would have limited the types of wheelchairs provided by Medicare and reduced Medicare reimbursement rates for wheelchairs. Their input, supported by letters from MDA National Chairman Jerry Lewis and others, was a key factor in Leavitt’s decision to alter the policy, which now takes into account the impact of progressive conditions such as neuromuscular diseases.

The group has communicated to governmental leaders its position on issues ranging from national health care to the enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Task Force has taken a stance on such legislation as the ADA Notification Act, the Inclusive Home Design Act, funding for Medicaid and long-term home health care services, and support for family caregivers.

A year after the Task Force’s creation, MDA received the National Council on Disability’s Outstanding Service Award for increasing public awareness of the capabilities of people with disabilities.


MDA’s Personal Achievement Award program also helps to break down myths and stereotypes about people with disabilities by recognizing the myriad contributions made by people affected by neuromuscular diseases.

The awards — presented at local, state and national levels — recognize achievements and community involvement, such as volunteerism, advocacy, career success, educational achievement and business leadership. Each year, MDA selects the national award recipient from its slate of state recipients. The national honoree is announced on the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon.

“The importance of the awards program lies in making the public aware that disability is no obstacle to accomplishment,” Blishak explained.

This year, the award has been renamed the Robert Ross MDA Personal Achievement Award, honoring the late MDA leader who established the awards program.

Since 1992, MDA has recognized 15 national award recipients, and thousands more at the local and state levels.

Stephen Mikita, an author and assistant attorney general for Utah, was the first national award recipient. A nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities, Mikita served on MDA’s National Task Force on Public Awareness.

The 2007 recipient, Matthew “Mo” Gerhardt of East Lansing, Mich., received the honor for his outstanding work as an academic enrichment coordinator in Michigan State University’s Office of Supportive Services. Gerhardt, 29, oversees the College Achievement Admissions Program, helps with academic advising and teaches a freshman seminar course. (See “Fight Spartan, Fight On,” Quest, November-December 2006.)

Nominations for the 2007 Personal Achievement Awards are now being reviewed.

Olympic swimmer to emcee MDA/ALS Bash

Augie and Lynne Nieto, co-chairpersons of MDA’s ALS Division, are hosting the Black & Blue Bash for Augie’s Quest to raise funds for MDA’s ALS research program on March 30 at the San Francisco Marriott.

Two-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Summer Sanders will serve as the event’s emcee, with other surprise guests and entertainment on tap.

The inaugural bash in 2006 raised $2.8 million for MDA’s ALS research program — a record amount for any event aimed at fighting ALS.

For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit, or call MDA at (714) 550-0161.

Passport to a cure

The fifth annual MDA Heartsongs Gala, named after the late MDA National Goodwill Ambassador Mattie Stepanek’s best-selling series of Heartsongs poetry books, will be held March 10 at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington.

Hosted by Tony Perkins of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” the gala will take guests on a “tour” of Asia. The event will pay tribute to Mattie, who died in June 2004; his mother, Jeni, an MDA vice president, is one of the featured speakers.

The black-tie event will honor Hank Cominiello, president of Safeway’s Eastern Division, as the 2007 Heartsongs Award winner for his company’s steadfast support of the Association. Safeway is an MDA national sponsor.

Last year’s event raised $1.15 million for MDA. For more information, visit

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