Aug 292010
Authors: Erin Udell

After lowering his wheelchair to fit under a table in the Lory Student Center food court on Wednesday afternoon, Joseph Akmakjian grabbed a pen and scribbled on a sheet of paper.

“See, it’s easy if you just break it up. It’s pronounced Ak-mak-g-an. Like Big Mac, but ak-mak” he said, with a laugh.

Akmakjian, a sophomore journalism and technical communications major at CSU, was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy type 2, a disorder that prevents nerves from communicating with muscles, hindering growth.

The Fort Collins native said he never had trouble fitting in and continues to be an integral part of the philanthropic community on campus. He holds positions within the Associated Students of CSU, Ram Leadership Team, the
Association for Student Activity Programming and the Career Center.

“The kids in school were always curious about my wheelchair, but I was rarely, if ever, teased or made fun of for it,” Akmakjian said. “I don’t get offended easily, I know that people often times are hesitant to ask a question about my differences because they don’t want to be rude, but I love when people ask.”

Akmakjian’s disease does not affect him from his shoulders up –– he has an average-sized head and complete control over the muscles in his face. But his body is small and weaker than normal.

His arms are thinner and show less muscle mass, but are fully functional. Though his hands are smaller, he has no problem writing.

He can feel sensations, he said, but he can’t put too much weight on his legs because his hips are dislocated. He is wheelchair-bound.

In the second grade, Akmakjian started work with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, MDA, after attending a fundraising event for the organization.

A few years later, he became the MDA Goodwill Ambassador for Northern Colorado when he was in the fifth grade.

“I went to fire department meetings, thanked the community at fundraising events and helped them understand muscular dystrophy,” Akmakjian said.

MDA’s programs include medical equipment repair, support groups, free medical clinics with muscular dystrophy specialists and a weeklong summer camp offered to children with forms of muscular dystrophy.

The summer camp, which Akmakjian went to for years, provides children with one-on-one attention from counselors.

While these resources are invaluable to those who use them, MDA’s ultimate goal is to find cures for the 43 neuromuscular diseases it covers.

During his sophomore year at Poudre High School, Akmakjian’s role in the association grew and he became the MDA Goodwill Ambassador for Colorado, which led him to cities like Colorado Springs and Denver, as well as to the annual MDA telethon in Las Vegas in 2008.

Akmakjian’s family was interviewed and filmed for the telethon, which aired nationally as a five-minute clip of Akmakjian, his mother and two sisters.

“My mom gets a little emotional in the video. It’s kind of embarrassing,” Akmakjian said.

When asked about his family, his face brightens with a relaxed smile as he looks off to his right.

“My family’s crazy,” Akmakjian said, his smile wide and still plastered to his face. “We aren’t as crazy as the Kardashians, but everyone compares us to them because we’re half Armenian too.”

Akmakjian went back to representing the MDA in Northern Colorado during his senior year of high school and focused more on local events in Fort Collins.

After starting college, Akmakjian decided not to apply for Goodwill Ambassador again.

“I’ve been focusing on my life at CSU and doing things on campus,” Akmakjian said.

A recent event, though, brought Akmakjian back to his fundraising roots.

Poudre Fire Authority, which is invested in raising money for MDA, hosted their annual rib-eating contest to benefit MDA on Aug. 7.

“All of our programs are funded by donations from sponsors and individuals,” said Lindsey Bauer, the regional coordinator for MDA. “MDA relies on the generosity of our corporate sponsors and individuals in our local communities.”

The annual rib-eating contest not only raised awareness and money, but also showed off Akmakjian’s fun-loving attitude.

“He entered the rib eating contest with his mom,” said Stephanie Ashley, former public affairs coordinator for MDA. “Whatever we have going on he jumps right in and has fun with it.”

“I love being social,” Akmakjian said. “I love to meet new people and make friends.”

With idols like Ryan Seacrest and Oprah Winfrey, Akmakjian has big city dreams of becoming a talk show host.

With a thirst for knowledge, love of life and unwavering determination, Akmakjian knows he can do anything he wants.

“I’m really not that different from every other student,” Akmakjian said. “I can still do everything they can, just in a different way.”

Staff writer Erin Udell can be reached at

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