Telemiracle: Changing the world, one miracle at a time

There are many ways we mark March in Saskatchewan. Hauling our kids to and from the rink for the last few hockey games of the season. Enjoying a final round of beer and chicken wings at the local curling club or getting one last ice fishing trip in before the snow melts away. In all cases, layering a bunnyhug under your winter coat because the weather will change from being ‘not half bad’ in the afternoon to ‘still freakin’ cold outside’ at night.

But nothing is more quintessentially Saskatchewan in March than answering the call to “ring those phones” during the province’s annual telethon — Telemiracle. The 21-hour variety show shines a spotlight on the diverse talent within the province, intermixed with performances by a celebrity cast. But more than that, it proves once again that small groups of people working together — coming together — to help others can have a powerful impact on our world.

Telemiracle was launched by the Kinsmen and Kinette Clubs of Saskatchewan in 1977 to raise money for the Kinsmen Telemiracle Foundation, which provides special needs equipment and financial support Saskatchewan residents dealing with medical challenges. Since then, the telethon has drawn $120 million in donations, including the record-setting $5.9 million in 2012 and 2017’s $5 million total. Not bad for a province with a population of roughly 1.1 million people.

But it isn’t just about the money. It’s about what that money does for people, and what it means to them — increased independence, release from stress, a show of love, a chance at life. In 2016, more than 600 applications for funding were granted, for things like accessible vehicles and playground equipment, bariatric beds and ultrasounds, and travel expenses for families with loved ones requiring distant medical care. The telethon shares some of their stories, but you can also read them here.

Telemiracle has had an impact on my life, but in a different way. When I was young, my parents were active members of the local Kinsmen and Kinette clubs. They put the “fun” in fundraiser, hosting things like dances and ball tournaments and family days to raise money for the club and the community. The Kin club was family — my friend’s parents were members too, and we had great times as kids tagging along and participating in these events.

On numerous occasions, my parents and their fellow Kin made the trek to Telemiracle to man the phones while my sisters and I camped out in our grandparents’ living room. We’d try our best to stay awake long enough to spot mom and dad on TV, keeping track as the total rose, and feeling an immense sense of pride when we beat the previous year’s record.

My dad served as a member of the Kinsmen Foundation Board for many years. This is the group who has the difficult task of deciding where the money raised goes. Because no matter how much money comes in, its never enough to meet the need. When he was on the board, we got to attend the Foundation Christmas parties held in Regina and Saskatoon. My dad would spend the day in meetings, and we would hang out in the hotel pool and count down the minutes until we could window-shop the aisles at Toys R’ Us (cause, hey, this was the 80s and we were country kids on a rare trip to the big city).

But the thing that still stands out most in my mind from these trips was the realization that what my parents and others like them were doing wasn’t just fun and games. It was important. And it was hard work. Helping people — really helping people — is serious business.

Change takes the village 

It takes a lot of work to pull off an event like Telemiracle. To book the celebrity cast and audition the local talent. To set up the venue and organize the volunteers. To keep the show rolling and the audience engaged for 21 commercial-free hours. Yes, a lot of work — and an incredible group of people.

To start, there are the Kin club members. They are the glue that holds the show together. Having had the opportunity to work the phones at a few Telemiracles, I can attest that a crazy amount of work goes on both onstage and behind the scenes — work that starts long before the show hits the air. I can’t begin to tell you what that work includes, though, because I’m sure I only glimpsed the tip of the iceberg, and because these Kin members are so good at what they do, they make it look seamless, easy.

Then there is the celebrity cast. A lot of big names have crossed the Telemiracle stage over the years, from homegrown regulars like Brad Johner and Donny Parenteau, to out-of-province imports like Johnny Reid, Carly Rae Jepsen and Beverly Mahood. However, in my mind, none will come close to Bob McGrath. Until his final appearance in 2015, McGrath missed only one Telemiracle in 38 years. I feel sad for the generations who won’t get to see him sing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “It isn’t Easy Being Green.” The guy was friends with Kermit the Frog, for crying out loud!

And of course there is the local talent — individuals and groups from across the province who make the trek to Regina or Saskatoon to take the stage and keep us entertained. And there are the other volunteers, from community groups and businesses, who take a turn manning the phones. And there are the die-hard supporters who camp out in the audience and enthusiastically cheer on the performers, even in the dead of night when most of the province, including some of the people on stage, have fallen asleep. (I remember working the on-stage phones in the wee hours of the morning one year when Brad Johner suddenly ran up to us and shouted, “I just had a Red Bull!” and my sister, who was nodding off in the chair next to me, nearly crapped her pants.)

The heart of Telemiracle

All of these people are essential to Telemiracle. There would be no miracles without them. But I believe the real heart of the event happens long before the on-air show begins. It starts in the elementary schools, and the grocery stores, and the local businesses, with penny parades, and hot dog sales, and the selling of Telemiracle hands. When people across the province put their time, effort and creativity to work to generously raise money for the cause. People like the ones who live in my hometown.

I may be biased, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a community that does a better job for Telemiracle than the town of Norquay. The Norquay Kin club hosts an annual deep-fried turkey supper where they auction off items donated by local businesses and members of the community. Things like knitted sweaters and signed sports jerseys, fertilizer and toy farm equipment, tools and home décor. One year, a loaf of the world’s best homemade bread brought in $5,000! The event is a big deal. New Orleans has Mardi Gras. Rio has Carnival. And Norquay has the Telemiracle supper.

And every year, they compile the money they’ve raised through the auction and supper with money from other fundraisers in the town, and present a massive cheque to Telemiracle. This year, Norquay’s cheque was for $44,000. $44,000 from a town that hovers around 430 people!

But raising this kind of money for Telemiracle isn’t an anomaly in Norquay. They do it year after year after year. In fact, in the past 15 years, this town has contributed nearly $600,000. In 2015 alone, they raised $79,000 — an average of $184 per person!

In all fairness, this money doesn’t just come from the people living within the town limits. It’s from Norquay and the surrounding rural area. Norquay and the neighbouring communities. But keep in mind that Sturgis, which is just 30 minutes away, raises an equally impressive amount for Telemiracle every year. And keep in mind that these totals don’t include the money that is called into the show by area residents. Or the fact that communities like Norquay don’t just pull together for Telemiracle. They pull together for other causes too. So it’s still freakin’ awesome!

Sometimes I think this town deserves more recognition. More accolades. Maybe even a standing ovation.

But of course Norquay doesn’t do it to be recognized. They do it because it’s important. Because it helps people. Because they know it makes a difference. This is the heart of Telemiracle — individuals, communities, coming together for a shared cause; working together to put the needs of others before their own.

Sometimes we lose sight of this. We’re too quick to judge who really deserves our help. We forget how complicated and difficult life can be. We forget that sometimes, a lot of times, bad things just happen. But for the grace of God go I.

And sometimes we feel like there’s nothing we can do to make a difference anyway. But fortunately for us, people like the residents of Norquay and Kin club members across the province are there to remind us that we can always make a difference. Especially when we work together, when we act together, to put others’ before ourselves.

Telemiracle is proof of this. Telemiracle is Saskatchewan stepping up to the plate and showing that when people need help, we help them. It’s Saskatchewan — it’s all of us — at our best.