Emotions were mixed as paraplegic Tamara Gordon launched her foundation last Thursday at Queen’s Park in the presence of the province’s Lieutenant Governor David Onley, family members and friends.
It was exactly 12 years ago Gordon suffered a debilitating spinal cord injury while on a high school downhill skiing trip. The spinal cord and brachial injuries left her paralyzed from the waist down and without the use of her dominant left hand.
Despite the setback, the Markham resident – who aspired to win a basketball scholarship to attend an American university and pursue a law degree – graduated on time from Agincourt Collegiate Institute as an Ontario scholar with a 91 per cent average.
“Forgive me if I get a little choked up at this time,” Gordon, tears streaming down her face, said at the launching ceremony. “February 13 marks the 12th anniversary of my skiing accident. It was an accident that changed my life. First, I was given little chance to live, then I was given no chance of functioning normally anymore. ‘You can’t’ was the medical practitioners’ diagnosis. ‘You can’t’ is what I was told. ‘You can’t’ is for quitters and people who want to give up.”
She was not prepared to do that.
In spite of limited mobility, recurring health issues and other challenges associated with functioning as a student and a person with disabilities, Gordon was quite active on campus at York University where she completed her undergraduate degree in Administrative Studies and was on the Dean’s List. She headed the student caucus for undergraduates with disabilities and served as the student undergraduate representative for Access York.
“It was during my time as a student representative for undergraduates with disabilities that the idea came to start a foundation,” said Gordon who received a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal from Prince Charles in 2012. “I have not just overcome my tragedy to be a fully functioning and contributing citizen of this country, but what matters most to me is that out of the dust of my defeat I have risen with strength enough to help others rise from their own dust of defeat, hopelessness and discouragement so they too can be fully functioning individuals.
“That is what this foundation in a nutshell is all about and that is enabling and empowering students with physical disabilities and encouraging and supporting those who are struggling with their future goals because of a physical disability…In addition to providing financial support, we want to help young people make the transition from school to employment. We cannot solve the entire world’s predicament, but we can make a difference where we are in our corner of the world.”
Onley, who invited Gordon to his installation as the province’s 28th Lieutenant Governor in September 2007, hosted the foundation’s launch reception.
“When I met her, she was already advocating for people with disabilities and had already received the Lieutenant Governor Award from my predecessor James Bartleman,” he said. “So it was obvious to anyone who knows Tammy that she would not allow adversity, whether it was a disability, health problems or whatever resulting from her accident or from any other source to stop her from achieving her dreams.
“I think it’s fair to say that Tammy would have been forgiven after the devastating accident she suffered over a decade ago to just be focusing on her own well-being. There is nothing wrong with that. Instead, she has dedicated her life to helping other people achieve their potential as she has.”
Still in its embryonic stage, the foundation – which recently received its charitable status – plans to offer financial assistance to 20 high school graduates this year and provide moral support to people with disabilities.
Former York University administrator Robert Tiffin heads the 11-member board.
“I met Tammy in my first year at York in 2005 and we immediately connected,” said Tiffin who is a post-secondary education consultant. “After I retired in July 2012, she told me she was moving ahead with the foundation and asked if I would join her to get if off the ground. Tammy is very committed, loyal and an extremely strong individual.”
Gordon is the recipient of close to 60 scholarships, certificates and awards, including Harry Jerome and TD Canada Trust scholarships. In August 2006, she completed an internship at a TD bank close to her then Don Mills residence and was offered a full-time position. She currently works with a branch near her Markham residence and is its diversity committee representative.
Andrea Case, a senior manager at TD Bank and a few of her colleagues, attended the launch.
“We were so impressed with Tammy’s work ethic and what she was able to accomplish as an intern that we offered her part-time employment as a customer relations coordinator while she was still in university,” said Case. “She was always willing to take on challenges despite her obstacles and she connected with our customers.”
Five years ago, Gordon was the recipient of the Ontario Medal for Young Volunteers and the Mildred Theobalds Prize awarded to the York University undergraduate student with the highest mark in the Introductory Marketing course. The award was set up to honour the late long-time York University program coordinator.
She is also quite busy in the community. She sponsors a volunteer centre for the tenants in the Don Mills building where her mother – Marcia – still lives and she’s a board member on the Operating Engineers Local 769 Non-profit Housing Inc. In the past, she was a peer support volunteer with the Canadian Paraplegic Association, spending hours with young people suffering from spinal cord injuries. She also spearheads a teen volunteer program and tutoring service, organizes free back-to-school barbecues and Canada Day celebrations and presents motivational speeches, always reminding young people to strive to overcome barriers they face in life.
“Tamara has refused to let her accident get in the way of her being a significant contributing member to society,” said educator and former Jamaican Canadian Association president Kamala-Jean Gopie.
Gordon was the recipient of a 2006 Harry Jerome scholarship given in the name of Gopie’s late mother, Lucille May Gopie.
“I have given out over 15 scholarships and Tamara is the only recipient that has maintained contact with me over the years,” added Gopie. “That’s why it was so important for me to be at the launch to show support for what she is doing.”
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) senior publicist Renee Weekes – a high school mate of Gordon – also took time off from her busy schedule to be at the reception.
“We were members of the school’s volleyball team and I remember Tammy was very excited about going on the annual ski trip,” recalled Weekes. “The day after the accident, the announcement was made on the school’s public address system and we were all in shock. She was very athletic and knowing that the injury would prevent her from playing sport was really devastating. A few weeks later when we went to visit her in hospital, we were brought to tears just seeing her hooked up to all these machines. She’s however resilient and I am not surprised that she has turned a negative event in her life into a positive.”
To learn more about the Tamara Gordon Foundation, go to www.tgfoundation.ca.