Six Familiar Faces

Catching up with past MDA National Personal Achievement Award recipients

by Amy Madsen on November 1, 2007 - 11:12am

QUEST Vol. 14, No. 6
Michael Wasser

Michael Wasser, 2005
33, Becker muscular dystrophy
An attorney with the New York City Corporation Counsel’s Office, Wasser works on matters he finds meaningful and interesting. This includes consulting on real estate transactions that benefit cultural and other institutions, and representing the city in the acquisition of property for building public schools, parks and affordable housing.

“This is in addition to my other job,” he jokes. “The one all-too-familiar to those of us living with muscular dystrophy — the job where I must wake up, wash up and win a pitched battle with my pants.”

Since receiving the PAA, Wasser has co-authored a chapter for the New York State Bar Association’s book on condemnation law. He’s met Mayor Michael Bloomberg and attended receptions commemorating the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act at Gracie Mansion (the official residence of the mayor of the city of New York).

For Wasser, winning the MDA National Personal Achievement Award was a “treasured honor,” one of many steps in his efforts to improve access for people with disabilites.

“It is my ability to interact with judges, colleagues, adversaries and other New Yorkers as a peer, who just happens to have a disability, where I believe the most effective progress toward transcending disability is made,” he says. “These nonpublicized, everyday opportunities go further than any award or article ever could.”

Nicholas Johnson

Nicholas Johnson, 2004
44, Friedreich's ataxia
A registered professional engineer and certified energy manager, Johnson works as an associate and senior mechanical engineer at Bard, Rao + Athanas Consulting Engineers at company headquarters in Watertown, Mass.

One of Johnson’s newest passions is working as a liaison, facilitating communication between MDA and the Friedreich’s Ataxia Research Alliance (FARA), where he’s on the board of directors and the executive committee. Johnson also serves as a member of MDA’s National Task Force on Public Awareness.

On winning the PAA, Johnson says, “It benefited me — put me in the spotlight and helped raise funds. With people that knew me and people who didn’t, it raised a great deal of excitement.”

Amy Dunaway-Haney

Amy Dunaway-Haney, 2003
38, limb-girdle muscular dystrophy
Currently on a sabbatical leave from teaching at Kettering Fairmont High School in Dayton, Ohio, Dunaway-Haney, along with her husband, Tim, is building a house in South Padre Island, Texas. While on leave, she plans to volunteer at orphanages, schools, clinics and communities on the Texas-Mexico border, and will be doing an independent study through the University of Dayton of Mexican culture and the Spanish language.

Dunaway-Haney won the Wal-Mart Teacher of the Year Award in 2005, and the Disney Teacher of the Year Award in 2006. She has given presentations to teachers from other schools and at educational conferences, and has published, with colleague Katie Oliver, more than 20 educational books and games for teachers and students.

“Winning the MDA Personal Achievement Award was a huge honor,” Dunaway-Haney says. “The sense of pride that came from representing all of the hardworking, accomplished people who have MD was tremendous.

“Everyone who has a neuromuscular disease or has a loved one with the disease, knows the challenges that we all face every day,” she adds. “Therefore, to be recognized as the Personal Achievement Award winner for MDA from all of the deserving people across the country who overcome obstacles every day, gives me the desire to continue to do my best and to never give up!”

Jan Blaustone

Jan Blaustone, 2001
52, limb-girdle muscular dystrophy
Blaustone spends most of her time with her husband Michael, son Lee, dogs and service dog in Nashville, Tenn., where she recently has become involved in fostering dogs for a friend’s non-profit, no-kill animal shelter, Proverbs 12:10 Animal Shelter ( She also volunteers as a speaker for the nonprofit Canine Assistants in Alpharetta, Ga.

Blaustone, a frequent contributor to Quest since 1994, has four paintings in the MDA Art Collection, including one honoring fire fighters after the Sept. 11 attacks. (Blaustone was a fire fighter prior to the onset of LGMD in 1987). She was a longtime host, with Marybeth Waltman (MDA’s 1999 PAA winner), of an MDA chat about service dogs, and currently serves on MDA’s National Task Force on Public Awareness where she’s a member of the steering committee.

Receiving the National Achievement Award meant many things to Blaustone, who says, “Part of me felt like Sally Field, saying, ‘You like me! You really, really like me!’ The other part felt like my family was patting me on the back for taking the cards that were dealt me and playing a decent hand.”

Blaustone says the most important aspect to winning was “being in the public eye as a woman who continues to grow, adapt and thrive while facing the challenges that progressive neuromuscular disease presents. It’s important,” she adds, “for all people, young people especially, disabled or otherwise, to follow their dreams, and if MDA’s presentations of these awards help individuals become inspired, then it’s all good and I’m proud to have been a part of it.”

Marybeth Waltman

Marybeth Waltman, 1999
47, spinal muscular atrophy
Waltman has worked for the Social Security Administration in Hartford, Conn., for nearly 25 years. A claims representative, she provides information and direction to help people obtain benefits from the agency.

Waltman and her husband, Jim, recently embarked on a mission to satisfy their passion for rescuing and training dogs. In 2002, the two founded Assistance Dogs Unlimited, a nonprofit agency that rescues dogs and trains them to provide service to people with mobility impairments.

“I was very flattered to receive the award,” Waltman says of her selection as the PAA recipient for 1999. “What I do every day — I don’t expect to be recognized. I consider myself a very normal person, so it was nice to be honored.”

Steve Mikita

Steve Mikita, 1992
51, spinal muscular atrophy
Mikita, the first-ever recipient of the National Personal Achievement Award, is working his 25th year as an assistant attorney general for the state of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Since his selection for the award, Mikita has written his second book, The Passionate Advocate, a guide for parents of children with physical disabilities. He’s made guest appearances on “60 Minutes” and “The Sally Jessy Raphael Show,” and served as a guest commentator on MSNBC.

“The national award gave me a platform,” Mikita says, “from which to speak out on issues impacting not only those of us with neuromuscular diseases, but all Americans with disabilities.

“I’ve received a lot of awards, but none has approached the value and impact that this award has had in my life.”

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