The Sandra Schmirler Foundation is a powerhouse in the world of Canadian charities.
Since 2001, the Foundation has raised and given almost $8 million to purchase life-saving equipment for Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) in over 100 hospitals in every Canadian province and territory. The lives of thousands of premature and critically ill babies have been saved because of the Sandra Schmirler Foundation.
Though the Foundation has grown and evolved over the years, one thing has remained constant: the true admiration and genuine love Canadians have for the Queen of Curling, Sandra Schmirler.
Sandra is arguably one of the greatest curlers of all time, racking up three wins at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, three world championships and an Olympic gold at the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games by the time she was 35. These incredible achievements made her a champion and a legend in the sport of curling.
But Sandra’s appeal transcended sport. Her resilience, humility, strength and determination made her a beloved Canadian icon.
These qualities are her lasting legacy. They continue to inspire thousands of Canadians to charitable action via the Foundation that bears her name.
It started with a sketch on the back of a napkin
After a difficult pregnancy, Sandra, her husband Shannon England and their toddler Sara welcomed Jenna to their family on June 30, 1999.
The curling world was shocked when, just two months later, Sandra was diagnosed with cancer.
Through the 1990s, Anne Merklinger’s Ottawa team (Theresa Breen, Patti McKnight & Audrey Frey), became one of Team Schmirler’s biggest on-ice rivals. But off the ice Sandra and Anne’s friendship grew, forged through respect and admiration.
When she heard her friend was sick, Anne knew women curlers would unite to support Sandra.
It was no surprise that when Merklinger and her team met for dinner, the conversation soon turned to what could be done to support Sandra and help her recover.
“We need to do something to rally the women’s curling community around a spiritual approach to helping Sandra get better,” Merklinger recalls. “How do we harness all of our energy so that Sandra and her teammates and family know how much everybody cares?”
Before long they were sketching the design of a pin on a napkin. The pin depicted four hands encircling a heart.
“The pin kind of became symbolic of how much the curling community cared about Sandra and the impact that she’d had on the curling community and all of our extended families,” Merklinger explained.
Chris and Karen Pasterfield, owners of Laurie Artiss Ltd. – The Pin People in Regina, manufactured the first silver pin. It was only available to competitive curlers.
Chris explains that the original pin was intended to send a direct message to Sandra.
“The original thought was that when teams were playing on TV, Sandra would see the pin and know they were thinking about her,” he said.
Curling fans from all over also saw the pin and wanted to show support for Sandra by wearing a pin of their own. A gold pin was produced for purchase, with all proceeds going to support the Canadian Cancer Society and neonatal baby care.
At the initial meeting about the gold pin, Karen wondered if they would be able to sell 500. And she soon got her answer.
“It took off like crazy,” Chris said. “People wanted to commemorate or sympathize with Sandra or with a mom or dad who had cancer but were curling fans and realized they could contribute by buying this pin.”
In the first nine months a remarkable 35,000 pins were sold, earning $360,000 for charity.
Chris and Karen had to hire more staff to keep up with the demand. But staff at Laurie Artiss did more than simply fill the thousands of orders. They listened.
“Every phone call was a story – about someone in their lives battling cancer, or the first time they saw Sandra curl or their pride in the gold medal or her national or international championships,” Karen recalled.
Curling mourns the loss of a dear friend
On March 2, 2000, the Canadian Curling Association (CCA) issued a press release announcing that Sandra Schmirler had lost her fierce eight-month battle with cancer that day.
“Sandra packed so much achievement into a life which was so tragically abbreviated,” then CCA president Jack Boutilier said. “We have celebrated Sandra’s athletic achievements as the leader of Canada’s greatest ever woman’s curling team and we rejoiced at her love of motherhood. Sandra will forever be in our hearts.”
Canada’s Prime Minister Jean Chretien spoke for the nation when he said:
“Most of us came to know her through her exploits as a champion curler and as an exemplary sports ambassador for Canada. But what really set her apart was her bright, engaging personality and her incredible zest for life, qualities that were so clearly in evidence as she fought so valiantly against her illness. She will be sorely missed.”
Her March 8 funeral ended five days of mourning in Saskatchewan, during which government flags flew at half-mast, moments of silence were observed at junior hockey games and prayers were offered in churches.
As Canadians watched their hero laid to rest, many reached for the phones to order a Sandra Schmirler pin.
Even though Chris and Karen at Laurie Artiss had gathered extra volunteers to answer calls during the service, it was difficult to keep up with the deluge of orders.
All these years later, Karen still gets choked up thinking about one of the calls she answered that day.
“It was a man from Detroit and he was ordering a pin for each of his daughters, and he had a story,” she said. “He said at the end that when he hears thunder, he’ll know it’s Sandra making a take out.”
“It worked out really, really well,” said Chris. “And we got to treasure her memory through a gold pin.”
A legacy for a Canadian hero
The outpouring of love for Sandra and the tremendous support for the Sandra Schmirler pin was proof positive that there was an appetite for giving within the curling community.
The Sandra Schmirler Foundation was born of the desire to keep Sandra’s spirit alive and with the generous support of Curling Canada and Scott Paper.
“There was a very strong community of support for Sandra that manifested itself in many ways,” said then national coach/team leader Lindsay Sparkes. “Because of who she was as a person, the Canadian Curling Association and Scott Paper really felt that this was an opportunity.”
Sandra’s teammate, Joan McCusker added, “they really wanted to create a legacy for a hero in Canada.”
And they succeeded.
The Sandra Schmirler Foundation was created in May 2001 by a group of Sandra’s friends and her teammates and coaches, Jan Betker, Marcia Gudereit, Joan McCusker, Atina Ford Johnston, Anita Ford and Lindsay Sparkes. Robin Wilson, one of the founders of the Sandra Schmirler Foundation, once said “Their vision was to create a living legacy in honour of this amazing woman who touched the hearts of so many Canadians from coast to coast to coast. While she lost her biggest battle, her legacy lives on.”
Sparkes credits Robin Wilson as a great motivator and visionary who helped to get the Sandra Schmirler Foundation off the ground.
Anne Merklinger was the first Chair of the Foundation and remembers that the board was motivated by the notion of providing a long-lasting legacy for Sandra.
“I think what the Foundation did was provide that spark plug, that catalyst, to find a way to honour a champion and a wonderful human in a way that was important to her and to her family,” she said.
In the early days, the funds raised by the Sandra Schmirler Foundation supported Scott Papers’ preferred charities. But as the Foundation grew and became more independent, it transitioned to a more specific focus of supporting the purchase of equipment for neonatal intensive care units.
Sparkes recalls that Team Schmirler supported the NICU at the Regina Hospital. It was a natural fit for a team composed of young mothers.
“We were all mothers and we felt for those moms,” McCusker explained.
Bernadette McIntyre, the present Chair of the Sandra Schmirler Foundation, said Sandra’s sisters and her mom, Shirley, helped the Foundation’s board zero in on supporting sick babies across Canada and the NICUs that help save their lives.
“She was a fierce competitor, but once she had the girls, her focus was so much on her beautiful babies,” McIntyre said. “She was just over the moon when she became a mother. The board wanted the emphasis to be on babies because Sandra’s last focus in her life was her babies.”
Sandra’s love for her girls was never more evident than when McIntyre dropped in on Shannon and the girls about two weeks after Sandra died. When she walked in the house, she was shocked to hear Sandra’s voice.
“They had the foresight. . . Sandra recorded children’s stories so that her babies could hear them read in her voice,” she said.
From then on, the Sandra Schmirler Foundation supported babies born too soon, too small or too sick. It is the only charity that gives exclusively to NICUs across Canada.
“The Foundation is really good at developing relationships with people who care about Sandra’s legacy and about the cause,” Sparkes confirmed.
McCusker said curlers “dreamed up” the telethon and thought it should take place at the Scotties because the team had been to the championship so many times.
Because attendance at the Scotties is usually a little lighter on the first weekend, it was decided that the Telethon would be held on the opening Sunday.
“It wasn’t just about the money being raised,” Merklinger explained. “It was about an opportunity for curling fans and people who admired and respected Sandra to be able to connect with her through the telethon.”
The very first telethon was held in Regina in 2001 at the Olympic Curling Trials.
“We were in this little room in the back of the arena,” Sparkes laughs.
From those humble beginnings, the telethon has grown every year.
“It’s kind of like wildfire. It spreads, for sure,” Merklinger says of the telethon’s success. “I think Canadians care a lot. And when they see the impact of something like the Sandra Schmirler Foundation, they sit up a little bit straighter and are grateful.”
The staying power of the telethon was put to the test when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
With great trepidation, the Foundation’s board and support team ironed out all the technical issues and took the telethon virtual. With no fans in the stands, McIntyre was worried. She needn’t have been.
Despite the new format and COVID restrictions, the 20th annual telethon smashed previous records and exceeded the target goal by raising an incredible $700,758.
The 2022 telethon, a virtual telethon again, was another record-breaker, raising $785,245. Then in 2023 at the Kamloops Scotties, yet another record was broken with $851,344 raised! And the goal for 2024 in Calgary is $1 million!
“One of the things I love about answering phones at the telethon is you get to find out why people are interested in the Foundation,” Sparkes explains. “It’s amazing just how many still are remembering Sandra. But there are so many now who share their stores about newborns – whether it’s their grandchildren or their own newborns or their niece. It fills my heart every year to work that telethon.”
Bravery and turmoil and coming out the other side
Few involved at the beginning could have guessed that a sketch on the back of a napkin would result in the far-reaching impact of the Sandra Schmirler Foundation.
“It’s beyond anything any of us ever imagined,” says Sparkes. “Robin was always a visionary and I bet she could see it. But the rest of us were just following a passion that we had to keep Sandra’s legacy alive.”
More than 20 years on, Sandra’s legacy is breathtaking. Since 2001, the Sandra Schmirler Foundation has transformed the lives of thousands of babies and their families. Giving critically ill newborns the chance to grow up to be champions like Sandra is an important way the Sandra Schmirler Foundation ensures Sandra’s courage and character live on.
McCusker believes the stories the Foundation tells – stories of babies and curlers – are instrumental to its success.
“They are stories of bravery and turmoil and coming out the other side,” she said.
In 2013, the Foundation expanded its reach even further when it established the Spirit of Sandra Scholarship Program, which financially aids young curlers who are pursuing their passion for the sport while balancing academic pursuits.
Each year, six recipients across Canada receive scholarships, helping to cultivate a new generation of athletes who embody Sandra’s spirit. These young curlers not only excel in their sport, but they also demonstrate remarkable community involvement, mirroring Sandra’s own charitable spirit.
The Spirit of Sandra Scholarship Program keeps Sandra’s memory alive and helps instill her values and love for curling in the leaders of tomorrow, creating a ripple effect that ensures her influence lives on.
The baton doesn’t end with the scholarship program.
Sandra’s girls – Jenna and Sara – are active ambassadors of the Foundation who provide a living link to their mother’s life and generosity.
Pride and gratitude
When asked what Sandra would think about the Foundation, two words come to Merklinger: pride and gratitude.
“She’d be so grateful to think that her legacy has had an impact on so many people and has helped so many families,” Merklinger said. “She would be incredibly grateful and proud. She would be proud of what the Foundation is doing and its impact on our country.”
Board of Directors
Anne Merklinger 2001-2005 (President, Past President)
Shannon England 2001-2013 (Vice-President, Director, Family representative)
Joan McCusker 2001-2006 (Director, Secretary)
Stephen Blythe 2001-2004 (Director, Scott Paper representative)
Judy Veinot 2001-2005 (Treasurer, Director)
Lindsay Sparkes 2001-2006 (Secretary, Vice President, President, Past Chair, Director)
Vic Rauter 2001-2003 (Director)
Don Wittman 2001-2002 (Director)
Guy Hemmings 2001-2002 (Director)
Jan Betker 2003-2009 (Director)
Jim Harper 2003-2007 (Director, Chair, Past Chair)
Muriel Fage 2003-2006 (Director)
Al Gilchrist 2004-2010 (Director)
John McPherson 2006-2011 (Director)
Don Lane 2006-2009 (Director, Secretary-Treasurer)
Don Livingston 2006-2007 (Director)
Jerry Shoemaker 2006-2009 (Director)
Al Hodgins 2006-2011 (Director, Chair)
Dianne Barker 2008-2011 (Director)
Jody Meli 2007-2016 (Director, Vice-Chair, Chair)
Gord Durnan 2008-2011 (Director)
Theresa Breen 2009-2019 (Treasurer, Vice Chair, Chair, Past Chair)
Fran Todd 2009-2010 (Director)
Bernadette McIntyre 2010-2012 & 2018 – (Director, Vice-Chair, Chair)
Chris Atchison 2010-2020 (Director, Vice-Chair, Chair)
David Clark 2010-2012 (Director, Treasurer)
Cheryl Bernard 2011-2012 (Director)
Brad Sylvester 2011-2020 (Director, Chair)
Peter Inch 2011-2015 (Director, Vice-Chair)
Cindy Maddock 2012-2013 (Director)
Steve Doty 2012-2021 (Treasurer, Director)
Todd Troyer 2013-2022 (Treasurer, Director)
Carol Kostrosky 2013-2022 (Director)
Sasha Carter 2014-2018 (Director, Vice-Chair)
Jon Mead 2015-2017 (Director)
Cathy Overton-Clapham 2015-2023 (Director, Scholar Mentor)
Catherine Hughes 2015-2023 (Director, Vice-Chair)
Ryan LeDrew 2017-2022 (Director)
Ian Cunningham 2017- (Director, Vice-Chair, Chair, Past Chair)
Janet Murphy 2017- (Director, Vice-Chair)
Mark Birtles 2019-2021 (Director)
Nick Locke 2020- (Director, Vice-Chair)
Lisa Weagle 2020- (Director, Scholar Mentor)
Sarah Fedirko 2020-2022 (Director)
Camille Cuthill 2021-2023 (Director)
Craig Duff 2021- (Director, Treasurer)
Kyle Barron 2022- (Director)
Kerry Galusha 2022- (Director)
Tara Popil 2022- (Director)
Julie McMullin 2022- (Director)
Mark Lang 2022- (Director)
Dave Parkes 2001-2006
Robin Wilson 2001-2012
Marcia Gudereit 2001-2009
Lindsay Sparkes 2006-2011
Greg Stremlaw 2007-2014
Shannon England 2013-
Al Hodgins 2015-2020
Theresa Breen 2019-2023
Chris Atchison 2020-
Steve Doty 2021-
Todd Troyer 2023-
Jan Betker, Third, Team Schmirler
Joan McCusker, Second, Team Schmirler
Marcia Gudereit, Lead, Team Schmirler
Atina Ford Johnston, Alternate, Team Schmirler
Anita Ford, Coach, Team Schmirler
Lindsay Sparkes, Team Leader, Team Schmirler
Anne Merklinger, SSF Founder
Robin Wilson, SSF Founder
Vic Rauter, Sportscaster, TSN
Scott Higgins, Senior Producer, TSN
JoAnne Viau 2001-2017
Linda Moore 2005-2007
Francine Poisson 2007-
Kathryn Ann Hill 2011
Brenda Gallagher 2012-2024
Robin Wilson 2012-2020
Tanya Martin 2017-
Darren McEwen 2016-