By Jeff Dodge
A Colorado State University alumnus has been named the first adult National Goodwill Ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Joseph “Joe” Akmakjian, who graduated from CSU in 2013 with a dual degree in communication studies and journalism and media communication with a concentration in public relations, made an appearance at Carnegie Hall and on The Today Show on Jan. 29 as MDA rolled out a new “Live Unlimited” campaign.
It is the first time in the ambassador program’s 64-year history that a child or teen hasn’t been selected to serve in the role. Past U.S. presidents, including John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, all have hosted sessions with MDA ambassadors.
“I’ve always dreamed of coming to New York, and this was the perfect opportunity to visit,” said Akmakjian, who was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2 when he was 15 months old. “I was really excited and thrilled to be a part of it.”
Today Show anchor Natalie Morales participated in the Carnegie Hall event, which also featured a video appearance by longtime MDA spokesperson Jerry Lewis — at the site where he hosted the MDA’s first national telethon in 1956.
“We’re proud to stand on the shoulders of our past, and Jerry’s been a big part of that,” Akmakjian said.
During his time at CSU, Akmakjian was involved with the Ram Leadership Team through the Associated Students of Colorado State University and RamEvents. He was also the PR coordinator for TEDxCSU.
“I have watched Joe go from being a vivacious teenager full of interest in current events and celebrity happenings to an inspiring young adult,” said Summer Shaffer of the CSU Career Center, where Akmakjian served on the Student Marketing Advisory Committee. “He is full of energy and has a driving commitment to help others realize their dreams and move past limitations. Joe is an inspiration to everyone who has the privilege of knowing him.”
Since graduating from CSU, the 24-year-old Fort Collins native and Poudre High School grad has been doing freelance public relations, marketing and client relations for Muscle Restoration Therapy in Fort Collins.
He’s been involved with the MDA since he was 6 years old, and his appointment as the organization’s first adult ambassador marks an effort to recognize that medical advances are extending the lives of those with muscle-debilitating diseases: Many of “Jerry’s Kids” have grown up and are successful adults.
In Akmakjian’s case, his parents were told he wouldn’t live past age 12; last year he went skydiving to celebrate doubling his life expectancy.
“With the help of MDA supporters, we’re living longer and doing exceptional things,” he said. “It’s no longer a kids’ disease. I’m excited to represent a community of adults who are models of strength and challenging the world around us to live life to the fullest.”
As the MDA’s new National Goodwill Ambassador, Akmakjian says he’ll travel around the country regularly to thank supporters, make connections with new sponsors and meet with families and individuals “to see what they need from us and how we can best serve them.” He said he’s especially excited about nurturing a new generation of supporters and engaging millennials in MDA’s mission.
‘Redefining what’s possible’
“My dream is to inspire all types of people — not just people with muscular dystrophy or ALS — to live beyond their perceived limitations and achieve the success inside them,” he said. “People often see my wheelchair and my physical limitations and ask me what I could do if I could walk. The truth is, we’re redefining what’s possible … with high hopes to inspire the world around us.”
As part of its renewed mission focus, MDA announced that it will double spending on research toward drug development and clinical trials, and increase the number of families who receive MDA care and support by 50 percent, to 150,000 individuals annually by the year 2020. In the next five years, MDA also plans to send 20,000 kids to its highly acclaimed, weeklong MDA Summer Camps, at no charge to their families.
The tagline of the new campaign is “For strength, independence and life.”