Comedian and actor Jerry Lewis, the longtime Muscular Dystrophy Association national chairman and host of the organization’s former Labor Day Telethon, is returning from his retired role with the groundbreaking charity that revolutionized public philanthropic giving in America.
Lewis helped introduce MDA’s revitalized brand on Jan. 29, when the Chicago-based charity returned to the city where it was founded by families for families at an event in New York City’s historic Carnegie Hall — the site of the first MDA national telethon — to announce its renewed commitment to advancing treatments and cures for the children, adults, and families it serves.
MDA was founded in 1950 by a prominent New York business leader fighting muscular dystrophy and now has nearly 100 local offices in towns across America. The charity reports that as part of its renewed mission focus, the organization will double spending on research in drug development and conducting clinical trials, and increase the number of families receiving MDA care and support by 50 percent to 150,000 individuals annually by 2020.
Over the next five years, MDA also plans to send 20,000 kids to its weeklong MDA Summer Camps at no cost to their families. The new MDA Family Resource Center, to be open by this summer, will enable individuals to call or connect online with trained neuromuscular disease specialists to get one-on-one information and support.
MDA will also set higher standards of care at its more than 150 MDA Care Centers (formerly called MDA clinics) to ensure all clients have access to early diagnosis, highly specialized care and promising clinical trials, and says it plans to expand its offerings for teens and young adults transitioning into adulthood and seeking to live independently.
“Our families spoke and we listened,” said MDA President and CEO Steven M. Derks in a release. “Just as kids and adults with muscular dystrophy must start a new fight each day, MDA is starting a new era in our fight on their behalf, building on our rich heritage. The result is an MDA determined to accelerate progress against the harmful effects of these diseases as we engage a new generation of supporters.”
Jerry Lewis, now age 89, hosted the annual Labor Day MDA telethon for decades until 2010, and in 2011 marked his last appearance as MDA national chairman. He has taped a special message to the MDA community, urging continued support for MDA and the families for which he vigorously championed over his years in those roles.
MDA held its last telethon in 2014, and announced on May 1, 2015 that new realities of television viewing and philanthropic giving had persuaded the organization to discontinue production of the historic Labor Day broadcast telethon format, which dated back nearly 60 years in various forms — most recently named the “MDA Show of Strength Telethon.”
The first telethon aired in 1956 and was hosted by Lewis and fellow actor Dean Martin, and over the years attracted America’s most famous celebrities, but none more prominent than Lewis, who emceed the event through 2010. The telethon was instrumental in raising awareness and donations to save and improve the lives of children and adults fighting muscular dystrophy, ALS, and other life-threatening diseases that severely limit muscle strength and mobility.
The MDA released a segment of Jerry Lewis’ message: “I haven’t stopped thinking of all of you … my wonderful friends and the critical work MDA does. I think it’s great that MDA has a new look and tagline. We’ve got to keep giving strength, independence and life to all the kids and adults who are fighting muscular dystrophy and related life-threatening diseases.”
In a 2015 statement, Derks said, “In its heyday, the MDA telethon sparked an era of giving and volunteerism across America inspired by courageous MDA families who became household heroes. Compassion flowed. Celebrities brought star power. Firefighters, mail carriers, and fraternal groups said ‘yes’ to an invitation to partner. Corporations and their customers got engaged. Parents used the telethon to help teach their kids the importance of giving back.”
MDA said it would invest more in digital and mobile channels for consumer engagement and activation, but would continue to share the inspirational stories of MDA families throughout the year as part of a new year-round plan to revitalize its brand, connect with donors more frequently, strengthen family support, and attract and recogniz sponsors in new ways.
MDA is announcing a new five-year plan to double its research spending for treatments and cures for muscular dystrophy, ALS and related diseases, noting in a release that scientists and drug developers are getting closer than ever to finding lifesaving treatments. In recent weeks, the first possible treatments for Duchenne muscular dystrophy — the most prevalent form of the disease — have been submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Boosted by $200 million in MDA research investments over six decades, the organization says more new treatment options and clinical trials are expected in the next five years than in the previous five decades.
To commemorate its new brand identity, MDA rolled out a new logo, website, and campaign called “Live Unlimited.” The logo features blue and marigold colors and shows a heart in the middle of the D in MDA, as a symbol of the families at the very center of its mission. MDA also introduced a new tagline, “For strength, independence and life,” underscoring its purpose.
The Jan. 29 event webcast on mda.org at 12:30 p.m. Eastern Time was expected to include appearances by Jerry Lewis, Natalie Morales from NBC’s “Today” show, Jann Carl from the “Small Town, Big Deal” cable TV show, Ernie Johnson of TNT, and Jordan Smith (2015 winner of “The Voice”), along with three inspiring MDA families.
“The MDA brand is iconic and now has a fresh identity that matches our passionate commitment,” said Steve Ford, MDA’s chief communications and marketing officer in the release. “The new campaign is inspired by the courageous kids and adults we serve who model strength, break down barriers and defy limits, overcoming in many cases formidable health struggles. MDA families are the inspiration behind everything we do.”
Derks said that “Jerry Lewis’ heroic efforts on behalf of MDA families and through MDA telethons have enabled us to help millions of Americans living with muscle-debilitating diseases and make possible progress in research that was once thought unimaginable. We’re thrilled to build on our rich history and have Jerry’s support as we strengthen our mission and introduce the new MDA brand.”
MDA is inviting supporters to share live unlimited moments on a new digital hub being launched today at http://mda.org. The organization also is planning to launch a new marketing campaign this summer, hoping to inspire more fundraising and corporate partnerships.
MDA Gets A New National Spokesperson
To mark a new era in which people with muscular dystrophy are living longer than ever with diseases once only considered pediatric, MDA is for the first time naming a young adult as its latest National Goodwill Ambassador — the first time in the ambassador program’s 64-year history that a child hasn’t been selected for the role which has included meeting with several past U.S. presidents, including John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.
MDA’s 2016 National Goodwill Ambassador is Joe Akmakjian, 24, from Fort Collins, Colorado. Diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy when he was 15 months old, Akmakjian’s parents were told he would likely not live past his 12th birthday. Last year, leaving his wheelchair behind, Akmakjian went skydiving to celebrate the special milestone of doubling his life expectancy.
As MDA’s most visible spokesman, it is expected that Akmakjian will deepen MDA’s reach among millennials and help raise awareness of the need for improved public policies and support for young adults with disabilities.
“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,” Akmakjian said in a press release. “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.”
You can view the Jerry Lewis video at http://youtu.be/Xsw4ZbpI14I.