Tannis M. Richardson – lifetime of challenges, vignettes of my life

Tannis, along with her late husband George T. Richardson, were founding members of JDRF’s Winnipeg chapter (1971) and the city’s A Starry Starry Night Gala in support of JDRF. Tannis has also been on both the national and international boards for JDRF, which was formally established in Canada in 1974.

At 95 years old, Tannis is known throughout Western Canada for her exemplary community service and volunteerism.

While she always led a life of service, it was the discovery that one of their four children – their daughter Pamela – had type 1 diabetes (T1D) that found the family on the frontline of a battle they knew little about. Diagnosed at nine-years-old, they had to learn to manage a disease that was not well understood at the time, or well supported by Manitoba or Canada’s healthcare system.

It was because of this that the family became devoted to raising awareness of T1D and ensuring adequate supports for Manitobans living with the disease, something Tannis still does today with her support of universal access for diabetes devices and technologies through JDRF’s #AccessForAll program.

Sadly, Pamela died at the age of 29 from complications of diabetes. Shortly thereafter, Tannis and George were invited by Helaine Shiff, (another JDRF Canada founder) to attend the JDRF gala in Toronto.

“The gala in Toronto was a huge and lovely affair. The next morning, I phoned to tell Helaine what a wonderful job she had done – to which she responded, ‘that’s all very well Tannis, but what are you going to do in Winnipeg to help JDRF’.

I was at a dinner few weeks later in Winnipeg, and I was sitting next to (Regional Director, CBC Western Division) Donald Ferguson, when he asked me – what are we going to do in Winnipeg about JDRF. I replied who do you mean by ‘we’ – to which he replied CBC & you (Tannis). Due to this conversation we started to discuss what we could do. Eventually the idea came to us to have a gala.”

There were three other families in Winnipeg that were active and interested in what they could do to help fundraise for diabetes research, and together we formed a committee that organized Winnipeg’s first JDRF gala, A Starry Starry Night, named after one of Tannis’s favourite songs, and held on the plaza at City Hall. Today, nearly 35 years later, the annual gala remains one of Winnipeg’s premier fundraising events.

“I’ve seen so many changes during my time with JDRF,” says Tannis. “There is so much knowledge about diabetes now being publicized. It was slow coming, and with our high incidence of diabetes in Manitoba, it took a while before it started coming to the forefront. It was a slow start, but steady. And of course, the A Starry Starry Night Gala certainly helped a great many people realize what a challenge it was to have diabetes. It allowed us to show the public how life changing and life challenging T1D is, and why T1D research needs to be financed.”

Part of Tannis’ ongoing support came with the publication of her autobiography, Vignettes from My Life, which was self-financed so that 100% of the proceeds can go to JDRF.

“I remember so much of my life, what I’ve experienced and what’s happened – so it was suggested that I make an oral history of my experiences. I did that for a year with Janet Walker, (from the University of Winnipeg) but it evolved from there to thinking about putting it down on paper. “I guess I am a storyteller, and what resonated for me is that there was a purpose in telling my story.

Tannis met with Dorothy Ross, JDRF’s Director of Leadership Giving for a lunch, where they discussed JDRF, the pace of research and the Campaign to Accelerate. During this conversation Tannis informed Dorothy she would like to make a transformational gift in support of the Global Research Pillar, which will harness the work of world-leading investigators and trainees both in Canada and globally to make breakthroughs in areas of T1D screening, prevention, better treatment, and cures.

“There has to be something there that is going to be the breakthrough. Stem cell research seems to be the best thing that we know how to do, and if supporting the research monetarily helps us find a cure, we need to get the word out there,” Tannis explains of her reason to contribute to this area of T1D research. So many people feel that they are not able to donate, but if they realize that whatever they can give is a step forward, it all helps,” she explains.

“People feel we’ve been looking for a cure for a long time, but finding insulin was a game changing discovery. Once that one discovery was made, everything could come from that.  I feel that way about (T1D) research now – because it’s advancing so quickly. Today is the time to support it. If contributions are going to make that a reality. While we can’t foresee the future, for people with diabetes – a cure will mean their whole life will change. It will take a lot of work and struggle before they find the answer, I’m hoping it’s tomorrow.  At the age of 95 I hope I see it in my lifetime. I want to be part of it,” says Tannis.

JDRF is so thankful to Tannis for her remarkable contributions, and we are proud to announce her most recent generous investment in diabetes research during National Diabetes Awareness Month.

“There’s always a bright light in a challenge, and for me – it’s the wonderful people who are contributing who have enriched my life,” she says. ‘I feel very honored that I have met so many incredible people through JDRF. It is quite an organization – once you are in battle you realize that there are so many people who are working so hard to bring the end to and help us to finally win. The JDRF group are very special to me.”