May 5, 2020
Tannis Richardson is a spirited woman who has devoted much of her life to local and charitable causes while touching countless lives. A founding member of JDRF’s Winnipeg chapter (1971) and founder of its annual A Starry Starry Night Gala, the nonagenarian is renowned in Western Canada for her extraordinary volunteerism and dedication to arts, health and cultural associations.
Giving back to others has been a way of life since Tannis was a young girl growing up in Winnipeg. Her parents were always community-minded, with her surgeon father establishing the first collective medical facility, the Winnipeg Clinic, and her mother lending support to various organizations. “My parents were extremely wonderful role models,” recalls Tannis.
Tannis’s first volunteer experience was with the Humpty Dumpty Club at the Winnipeg General Hospital. Each Saturday she would accompany her father to the hospital to play with, and read to, the young patients in the children’s ward while he completed his rounds. She would later become a volunteer nurse’s aide during WWII, which was also very rewarding.
“I’ve had experiences that I treasure,” remarks Tannis. “Through the journey in life one experiences encounters with strangers that you don’t expect to have, which enrich your own life and hopefully does the same for them.”
When it was discovered that one of their four children had type 1 diabetes (T1D), Tannis and her husband, George, found themselves thrust into unfamiliar territory, which would soon see them become catalysts of change. Diagnosed at the age of nine, their daughter, Pamela, fought a valiant battle against a disease that was not well known at the time and had few supports in place within Canada’s healthcare system.
“It is high time we had coverage because it is a dreadful burden to put on people. I am encouraged by the support that JDRF is giving to families and that type 1 diabetes is better understood by the general public.”
“There was very little communication about Pamela’s treatment in the medical field back then,” Tannis recalls. “We were required to go from one hospital to another and there were few to support us besides our family and friends because communication between different health services was lacking regarding type 1 diabetes.”
Pamela died at the age of 29 from complications of T1D. Not long after, Tannis and George attended a Toronto gala for JDF (now JDRF) where they met Helaine Shiff, another JDRF Canada founder, who challenged them with: “What are you going to do in Winnipeg?”
Shortly after returning home, Tannis and George attended a function where they met CBC entertainer, Donald Ferguson. In conversation he turned to Tannis to ask, “What are WE going to do about JDF in Winnipeg?” Tannis replied with, “Who are WE?” To which Donald replied, “CBC and you.”
In 1987 CBC was bringing the Royal Canadian Air Farce to Winnipeg and Donald suggested that JDRF should sell the tickets with the proceeds going to support juvenile diabetes research.
“With the Canadian Air Farce as entertainment we made $64,000 that night,” Tannis remembers fondly. “About half the committee had no diabetes in their family, and I was amazed by how many friends came to help. They were incredible people and it was a very special time.”
The following year the committee organized Winnipeg’s first JDRF gala, A Starry Starry Night, which was held at the plaza at City Hall. Today, some 33 years later, the annual gala remains one of Winnipeg’s premier events.
Tannis has chaired JDRF’s local fundraising committee and served on the National Executive Committee and Board of Chancellors, as well as with JDRF International. Forever keen, she remains committed to helping those with T1D. Currently, Manitoba only covers insulin pumps for people with T1D under 18 years of age. As a result, Tannis continues to work towards securing free coverage for insulin pumps for all Manitobans.
“It is high time we had coverage because it is a dreadful burden to put on people,” she says. “I am encouraged by the support that JDRF is giving to families and that type 1 diabetes is better understood by the general public.”
Asked about the social footprint she would like to leave, Tannis keeps it simple. “I would like to be remembered as being approachable and caring about others’ well-being. I don’t like to be called a philanthropist because everyone can be aphilanthropist by giving of their time and support to others.”
Which brings Tannis to one of her favourite memories that she has “treasured in her heart” throughout the years. It was in 1988, the morning of the first A Starry Starry Night Gala, and committee members were setting up at City Hall. A woman making her way down the steps to the plaza asked Tannis what was happening. Tannis replied “…that a wonderful evening was in store and that everyone attending would be donating towards finding a cure for type 1 diabetes.” The woman hesitated a moment before opening her well-worn purse. Taking out a dollar bill, she handed it to Tannis and said, “I hope this helps you find a cure for diabetes.”
“I remember thinking, philanthropy comes in many forms,” says Tannis. “As the woman walked away, tears came to my eyes and I thought that this person has given what she was able for the betterment of others, which is the definition of philanthropy.”