Muscular Dystrophy Association cuts programs, donations down

Joey Feltner, 27, of Carrollton unhappily discovered the program cut after his manual wheelchair was stolen two weeks ago. His mother, Kathy Bray, called the Atlanta MDA office, which used to provide grants of up to $2,000 for wheelchairs. An MDA worker told her the program no longer existed because of budget cuts.

"I can't go to Wal-Mart or anything," Feltner said. "They have them scooters there, but they don't have the arms to keep me in the seat. I don' t have the balance anymore to keep myself in the seat."

Muscular dystrophy is a general name for a number of degenerative muscular diseases, where patients gradually lose control of their motor skills.

A national MDA spokesperson blamed program cuts on the sour economy, which led to drops in donations and investment losses. The nonprofit has had multi-million dollar deficits since 2007.

Most nonprofits are hurting in this economy, said Sandra Miniutti at Charity Navigator, a New Jersey-based nonprofit watchdog group. Many have trimmed staff and programs while demand for help increased.  In 2009,  charitable giving dropped about 5 percent nationwide, the first drop in decades.

Tax documents for MDA say donors gave $183 million in 2006, but that dropped to $137 million in 2007. It had a deficit near $15 million. Donations climbed to $182 million in 2008, but the MDA ended with a $42 million deficit because of increased expenses and $18 million in investment losses.

Nonprofits can invest money on hand and have endowments or gifts of stock that can lose value.

In response, the MDA cut the $6 million-a-year wheelchair program and reduced its $47 million in grants to medical research by $4 million. The MDA, whose Labor Day telethons hosted by Jerry Lewis raised hundreds of millions of dollars, also laid off staff and reduced help to the 200 U.S. medical clinics it operates, a spokesperson said.

A survey this year showed CEOs at 30 percent of nonprofits took salary cuts in 2009.

Gerald Weinberg, the CEO of the MDA, earned $313,215 in salary and benefits according to 2007 tax documents. It went up to $409,063 in 2008.

Jim Brown, national executive vice-president of public relations for MDA, defended Weinberg's earnings.

"Our CEO's compensation is appropriate for what he does and has done for over four decades [with the MDA]," he said. "He helps create magic for MDA every day, every year."

Miniutti said the MDA was already showing signs of decreased giving before the economy tanked. Charity Navigator grades charities on a four-star system, with four stars being the highest. The MDA dropped from three stars to two, she said, because it was bringing in less money and spending less on its programs.

The Better Business Bureau lists the MDA as meeting 20 charitable standards and gives it the BBB's National Charity Seal of approval.

The MDA continues to send about 100 metro Atlanta children to summer camp yearly, and operates two clinics in Atlanta to provide medical diagnosis, therapy and patient and family support, said Michelle Morgan, the national senior vice president of health care services. The nonprofit notified people by letter of the cuts to the wheelchair program and other services. The nonprofit is still trying to provide wheelchairs through donations, she said.

The MDA telethon used to tout its work by lining up shiny, new wheelchairs in view of Lewis and celebrity guests.

Providing wheelchairs was a visible sign that the nonprofit was helping individuals, not just researchers, said Bray, Feltner's mother. She pointed out the MDA Web site still touts buying wheelchairs and other equipment as one way it helps.

A new manual chair that would meet Feltner's needs would cost more than $2,000. Feltner has a power wheelchair that he uses to move around his house. Transporting the power wheelchair in the family's car isn't possible because of its size and weight.  The occasional doctor's appointment, lunch or shopping trip with his mother have ended until he finds a replacement.

"Medicaid pays $372 for a wheelchair," said Bray, a cosmetologist.  "I can't afford a new wheelchair."

Brown said the organization is working closely with Bray to obtain another manual wheelchair for her son. MDA provided the original wheelchair and paid for repairs to Feltner's powerchair last year, he said.

"The reality is this -- we're not giving up," he said. "The MDA will continue to work with her family, just as we do all families."

The Atlanta office called Bray and offered to try to find a used chair or to try to piece one together out of donated parts. The office recently dropped off three used wheelchairs to the family from its loaner department. None of them worked for her son, Bray said.

"I told her we don't want a jacked-up, scrapped-together wheelchair," Bray said, adding that poorly fitted wheelchairs can cause bed sores and other physical problems for Feltner, whose immune system is already compromised by the disease.

"It's my 50th birthday this Saturday," she said. "I don't know how we're going to [take him] to go out for my birthday."

MDA's Georgia executive director, Amy Alvarez, said they will continue to look for solutions.

"We are very sad to hear her frustration and empathize with that," Alvarez said. "Whether the family is willing to take what we can offer is up to them."

Staff writer Katie Leslie contributed to this report.

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