Fotini Alfieris: former broadcast journalist heads local MS Society
The 2014 Walk MS at Woodward Park in Fresno. Photo courtesy of the MS Society.
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Fotini Alfieris: former broadcast journalist heads local MS Society
Fotini Alfieris was once an ambitious broadcast journalist who produced professional newscasts in college. She enjoyed the adrenaline rush and thought this would be her life.
Then, at 22, she was diagnosed with MS, a progressive neurological disease that hits people in the prime of life. She eventually left journalism, got married and found her true calling: working for the MS Society.
Now at 30, Alfieris is the Central Valley program director for the Southern California/Nevada Chapter of the MS Society.
She calls her job “amazing,” and says she likes “being there for people, especially [the] newly diagnosed to let them know there is life after diagnosis.”
Her job includes programming and educating. She organizes wellness classes and workshops such as Free From Falls, Yoga for MS, Cogni Fitness and Nutrition and MS. Her services cover Madera, Fresno, Tulare and Kings counties.
“What I’ve realized is this diagnosis has truly been a
blessing in disguise.
“In the beginning it’s just, ‘What?’ ‘Why?’” Alfieris said. “You are so angry, and then you realize ‘I’m able to do what I do best and put it toward something that is good for so many people.’”
Her diagnosis also gives her instant credibility with people who have MS.
One time a frustrated woman called the MS society and asked her, “How would you understand?” When Alfieris told her she had temporarily lost vision in both her eyes, the woman’s attitude “completely changed,” the Colorado native recalled.
Originally from Denver, Alfieris came to the Valley in August 2005 for an internship at KMPH, then owned by Pappas Broadcasting. She started part-time on the floor, became a writer and then produced “Great Day.”
Ready to start Fresno State that January, she got a job offer to work for Harry Pappas, owner of Pappas Broadcasting, in Reno. She worked on projects and was part of a team that launched community correspondents in 25 stations across the country. She traveled and did feature reporting on the side for KFRE in Reno. In early 2007, she was going full tilt, under a lot of stress and was finally reaching senior status at the University of Nevada, Reno when her body gave out.
She had numbness, tingling, blurred vision, was running into things and didn’t feel right. She remembers thinking, “There’s something wrong with my body.”
It came to a head when she took her then boyfriend, Steve, to the airport. He called after checking in and she told him she was headed to the hospital. His luggage left, but he skipped the flight to be with her.
Four days of tests followed. The diagnosis came. Two weeks later she lost vision in her left eye. (Her sight has since been restored.)
“ I had no idea. MS? What is that? Jerry’s kids? I knew nothing about it,” Alfieris said. “Nobody in my family had it.”
The beginning was hard. She had to drop her college classes. She felt betrayed.
“I’d been an athlete all my life,” she said.
Her MS was aggressive. Because of balance and difficulty walking, she gave away her high-heeled shoes thinking she would never wear them again.
“Then I made a decision,” Alfieris said. “‘I need to make lemonade out of lemons and make this a blessing.’”
She has been on a disease-modifying drug for six years and has not relapsed.
Her husband is supportive.
“When they diagnosed me, I said, ‘You did not sign up for this. I will not hate you if you leave me,’” Afieris recalled.
He told her, “You look at me right now. I’m not going anywhere.”
“He was with me when I went through the worst of it, when I couldn’t walk across the room,” she said.
A month later, he proposed and they married the following year.
“It’s never been, ‘She has MS.’ It’s, ‘We have MS,’” Alfieris said.
Return to the Valley
In August 2007, Alfieris returned to Fresno to produce “Valley Life” at KMPH. She also started volunteering with the MS Society.
“I said, ‘Gosh, I should help. How can I help? Utilize me,’” she said.
Her health declined and she took a leave from her producing job to plan her wedding. Then, the MS Society hired her to help with the annual walk.
In July 2008 she was offered at full-time job as the community development coordinator.
Now, she and a part-time person run the Fresno office. She has more than tripled the amount the Fresno MS walk raises, taking it from $50,000 in 2007 to $163,000 last year. Participation has increased from 850 people in 2007 to 2,000 in 2014.
Last year, Alfieris successfully moved the walk from Woodward Park, where the terrain was uneven and participants had to pay parking fees, to Fig Garden Village. She also persuaded the city to close Palm Avenue from Shaw to Browning Avenue.
“The walk is my pride and joy, knowing how small it was and how huge it is now. It’s an awesome community event,” she said.
At this year’s walk on April 25, about 30 “Fo Fighters” will be out in full force. The name is a play on the band the Foo Fighters and is composed of Alfieris’ family and friends. They will join about 60 other teams. Alfieris’ younger sister and an aunt in Denver started the original “Fo Fighters.” All told, the two teams have raised about $200,000 for MS.
“A giving and indomitable spirit”
Alfieris is known in the community as a hard worker.
“Fotini doesn’t stop,” said Cortney Snapp, community director for Make-A-Wish Central California. “She has regular priorities just like the rest of us. Family, home life, friends, church, the list goes on and on. I think I am a busy woman, and then I look at Fotini in awe.”
Snapp called Alfieris a “world changer” and has been part of the Fo Fighters team for six years.
“When she was diagnosed with MS, she decided to make it her life’s passion to challenge the disease head-on,” said the Rev. Fr. James C. Pappas, her priest at St. George Church in Fresno, who described her as “a giving and indomitable spirit.”
“Her faith in God has strengthened and she has rallied the entire church to support the efforts to find a cure.”
She has rallied others, as well. In 2011, she was able to get Stamoules Produce to put orange bands with “MS Join the Movement” around boxes of broccoli. (Orange is the official color representing MS awareness.) The company has also replaced their standard blue bands with orange bands on corn and cantaloupe that is shipped to Canada and Mexico and changed the color of their logo to orange.
“My hope is that other produce companies who do have a connection to MS might do that,” she said.
Alfieris also started a Dinner of Champions benefit in Fresno, which honors a Central Valley donor. Last fall, the $150 a plate dinner raised $50,000.
Asking for money
Raising money in the Valley is challenging.
“We are reaching for a pool of money that is so small,” Alfieris explained. “It’s really hard to convince people your cause is worth it. There are so many worthy causes.
“People say, ‘How can you ask for money for a living?’ But I know what is at risk if I don’t. I risk losing funding for programs and services.”
She said much of the money raised is kept locally, adding that the MS website is transparent about what the funds are used for.
Another challenge is covering a large region with no MS specialist and working with rural health care professionals. Making connections and cultivating relationships is key, she said. So is helping people understand MS.
“It’s something we struggle with all the time. Every interview I’ve ever done, especially during MS Awareness Week, I make it clear we are not Jerry’s kids. We are not MD,” she said of muscular dystrophy, a group of muscular diseases. “We are multiple sclerosis.”
Worldwide, 2.4 million people have MS. Alfieris said someone new is diagnosed with the disease every hour of every day. It affects women more than men.
While there is no known cause or cure for MS, there are treatments.
“It’s exciting to think there is so much research going on,” she said.
When Alfieris was diagnosed, there were five disease-modifying medications. Now there are 12 FDA approved medications. (There is no treatment for progressive MS.)
Alfieris said MS is a different disease from 30 years ago. Then, “they would send you home and wish you luck,” she noted. Now, if caught early, many people with MS can live normal lives.
While most of her 45 co-workers in the Southern California/Nevada chapter have a connection to the disease through a sibling or a parent, Alfieris is the only employee who has MS.
“I laugh. I tell them I care about it just a little bit more,” she said.
Judith House Menezes is a professor of journalism and adviser to the student newspaper at College of the Sequoias in Visalia.
Walk MS Fresno 2015
April 25, 9 a.m.
Fig Garden Village
For more information, contact Fotini Alfieris at 559-439-2154 or firstname.lastname@example.org