Hoffman honored by MDA

Aug. 25, 2011

By Adam White

Observer staff

Williston resident Sylvia Hoffman has been named the recipient of the 2011 Robert Ross Personal Achievement Award for Vermont by the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Hoffman, 30, emigrated to the U.S. from Romania three years ago, and has remained active traveling and volunteering for MDA Vermont despite being confined to a wheelchair. (Photo courtesy of Sylvia Hoffman)

After moving halfway around the world to Williston, Sylvia Hoffman is being recognized for living an inspirational life – in spite of a challenging physical condition.

Hoffman, 30, has been named the recipient of the 2011 Robert Ross Personal Achievement Award for Vermont by the Muscular Dystrophy Association. A native of Romania who has the motor neuron disease spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), Hoffman was recognized with MDA’s highest state-level award for her volunteer and advocacy work with the group, as well as her personal and professional achievements.

“She is a very well-rounded individual who has accomplished so much, despite her disability,” said Kelly Wyndronkowski, fundraising coordinator for MDA. “She never lets the things she is unable to do get in the way of what she can. This is a quality we should admire and look up to.”

Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Hoffman has traveled – sometimes alone – to places like New York City, Florida, Canada, Greece and her homeland. She said that national travel in particular has been an empowering experience, thanks to strides in handicapped accessibility that have been made across the country.

“America is very adaptable and puts no boundaries on people confined to a wheelchair,” Hoffman said. “Every place I visited has something unique, and I enjoyed them all. I like seeing new things, trying new foods, and learning about their history.”

She has also pursued a variety of professional disciplines, including pharmacy, accounting and Web design. She initially got involved in her parents’ pharmacy business, because she “wanted to help them, and have the opportunity to work like a normal person.” Since moving to the U.S., she has extended her travels deeper into cyberspace, enjoying its freedom while also recognizing an opportunity to increase awareness about her condition.

“I like computers, and spending most of my time at home, I got absorbed into what they offer, and what you can give back,” she said. “I tried to build a website about my disease and my way of living with it.”

Those efforts, in conjunction with her volunteer organizational work for MDA, are what first caught the eye of the organization’s leaders. She was selected as the Green Mountain State’s recipient of the Robert Ross Award after winning a local award from the MDA’s Eastern New York and Vermont chapter.

“[Hoffman] is a shining example of the kind of leadership that people with disabilities contribute to their communities every day,” said Gerald Weinberg, president and CEO of MDA.

Wydronkowski said that Hoffman is “always trying to figure out a way” to assist in MDA’s fundraising efforts in Vermont.Hoffman said she derives a kind of satisfaction from her community service that helps her further transcend the limitations imposed by her condition.

“It is a great feeling and opportunity to try to help others, as long as I can do it,” she said. “I am looking forward to future events organized by MDA and I would definitely want to participate again.”

Hoffman emigrated to the U.S. in 2008, and came to Williston shortly thereafter when her husband changed jobs. She said that several aspects of her new hometown – which she describes as “a resort town with friendly people and lots of fresh air” – have given her a boost in overcoming the challenges of her disease.

“I enjoy each day of sun in which I can go out and be independent, due to the accessibility of Williston’s buses and stores,” she said.

That increased accessibility has been a significant difference from her country of origin. As she worked to integrate herself into her family’s pharmacy business there, Hoffman had trouble establishing independence due to the obstacles created by SMA.

“Life in Romania was very disabling,” she said. “When I was living there, everything was very inadaptable.  I had to rely on others whenever I needed help.”

Spinal Muscular Atrophy is a genetic neuromuscular disease resulting in progressive muscular atrophy. The severity of the disease can range from mild to severe; Hoffman describes her case as “somewhere in the middle.” She can breathe on her own, but lost the ability to walk.

“SMA, for me, is a part of me, and of my life, but I have learned to cope with it,” she said. “Everything is a lot harder for me to do than a normal person, but I also know that there is always a solution.

“It is all about adapting to the situation. Challenges are everywhere, from the moment I open my eyes, and try to get out of bed, until the moment I go to bed, but being inventive and insistent helps to get me through the day.”

And by serving as a positive example of perseverence, the well-traveled Willistonian has likely helped many other people with disabilities get through their days as well.

“It is important for all others with disabilities to know and realize that accomplishments and successes are achievable and not impossible because of a wheelchair, walker or leg braces,” Wydronkowski said. “[Hoffman] is a determined, strong-willed person who is unwilling to let anything get in the way of her dreams and goals.”