John Tavares Foundation supporting Indigenous communities through Ballantyne Project

Teaming up with the Ballantyne Project, the John Tavares Foundation has assisted Indigenous communities through two separate initiatives.

John Tavares Foundation supporting Indigenous communities through Ballantyne Project

Feature Photo: IG / @johntavaresfdn

For John and Aryne Tavares, an idea that began with putting pen to paper became the foundation for making a world of difference.

After years of brainstorming how they could best give back, John, a 15-year NHL veteran and current Toronto Maple Leafs captain, and Aryne, a physiotherapist by trade, landed on the idea of starting a charitable foundation as the most impactful way to achieve their shared goals.

In 2020, the husband and wife unveiled the John Tavares Foundation.

“You are literally planning this foundation on a piece of paper,” recalled Aryne, who first met John in high school through their volunteer work with special needs kids.

“You don’t know which way it is going to go. We have had to turn our steering wheel a few times, but it has all been for the best. There is nothing we would look back on and regret.”

It is easy to understand why.

Since its inception, the JTF, which is built on the pillars of healthy eating, physical activity and mindfulness, has assisted thousands through its championing of youth-based initiatives across Canada.

Just one recent example of the foundation’s wide-ranging reach is its support of the Ballantyne Project a nonprofit youth-led initiative that bridges the gap between remote Indigenous communities and the rest of Canada.

Founded in 2019 by Dwight Ballantyne, a member of Canada’s Indigenous community who grew up in the remote Montreal Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, part of the charity’s mandate is helping kids in remote Indigenous communities who are dealing with food insecurity.

“We started with Dwight almost five years ago and we have done something with him ever since,” said Aryne. 

“Through funds from JTF, he has been able to deliver food, which is important for people living in remote communities. There was an area hit by forest fires, which hasn’t yet recovered, and we have been able to fund Dwight, who personally drives food to this specific reserve, for those living there.”

In early 2023, the JTF donated $50,000 to the Ballantyne Project in support of their Food Project initiative, a program that helped provide nutritious food to Lytton First Nation in British Columbia, which is still dealing with the aftermath of the fire in 2021. The couple followed it up with another $75,000 donation in February 2024 to the Ballantyne Project.

An Instagram post on the JTF page last June shared some updates related to the Food Project.

Another area of focus for the JTF is recognizing the importance of quality time as a family, including moments spent together around the dinner table with their three children, sons Jace and Axton, and daughter Rae [Raelynn].

“I always remember the importance of sitting down to dinner with my parents,” recalled John, who has played the past six seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“My mom is a tremendous cook, so whether it was through her Polish heritage or my father’s Portuguese side, the times we had together at the dinner table became more and more important to me over the years.

“In the moment, sitting down for dinner seemed very ordinary because it was something we did daily,” he continued. “But some of the things I remember most about my childhood and that have had the biggest impact on me, even if I didn’t realize it at the time, were those moments around the dinner table.

“So, when you can help provide a meal and give a family an opportunity to sit down, break bread together and just be with one another it’s nice to play a part in bringing that to others.”

The JTF has also supported the Ballantyne Project’s #WeSeeYou campaign, which enables Indigenous youth living in remote areas to experience trips that they have never had the opportunity to take before.

In May 2022, through its partnership with JTF, the Ballantyne Project took nine youth from the remote fly-in community of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, to Vancouver, British Columbia, for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to tour. For many, it was their first chance to explore a big city and touch the ocean.

There have been other trips, also supported by the JTF, since then. The most recently one happening in April 2024.

“It is tremendous,” said Aryne. “We had Air Canada jump on board, and they were able to provide free flights and discounted flights to these kids and their chaperones. There were 16 youths and four chaperones who went to Vancouver in April.

“Through connections, we were able to contact someone with the Vancouver Canucks,” she continued. “The president of the team [Jim Rutherford] took all the fees for the hockey tickets and hosted the youth and chaperones for a hockey game in Vancouver.”

Not surprisingly, the trips are in high demand.

“The youth have to submit an application now it has come to the point where it is a sought-after trip,” shared Aryne. “For many, it is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. For most, it is the first time staying at a hotel, the first time going to a restaurant, and so much more.

“At the bottom of the application, there is a question, ‘What is the one thing you would love to do?’ Dwight told us so many of the kids wrote that they want to attend an NHL game.

“Rogers supported it and there was a camera crew who captured the experience. To show others the difference moments like this are making is wonderful. They had a great time. To see the joy on their faces was truly remarkable.”

The Tavares family have seen those smiles hundreds of times.

Their goal is to see many more for years to come.

“We knew the things that were important to us and that we could connect with,” said John, the first overall pick at the 2009 NHL Draft. “There have been so many great opportunities and partnerships that have come about over the years, which have taken us down different avenues that we hadn’t expected.

“There have been different challenges and different circumstances since we started the foundation, but they all help you realize there are so many ways to help make a difference.”

Seeing the JTF grow has been the very definition of a team effort.

“It’s been special to do something together like this,” said John. “Aryne is someone I have always admired because of her trait of wanting to make a difference and helping people.

“She had that same outlook during her time at school, in the things she volunteered for and as a physiotherapist.”

While much has changed since the launch of the JTF, John and Aryne are happy where the foundation is at and excited for its future.

“When we had our first son, Jace, I went back to my physiotherapy workplace,” said Aryne.

“We were right in the middle of launching the foundation. We always had the vision, but it was a case of when and what we wanted it to be. There are a lot of questions you need answers to.

“We had our second son [Axton], and I never went back to my physiotherapy role after that. COVID hit we launched in the middle of it in 2020. We had someone help us launch the foundation and then I eased into taking on a full-time volunteer job with it. The foundation is all volunteers and every dollar that comes in, goes out.”

Whether it is working with Special Olympics Canada, an organization John has been involved with since his junior hockey days, Providing Instruments for Excellence (PIE), or refurbishing outdoor sports courts in Toronto parks, the JTF remains a treasured way for the couple to give back to others.

“Hockey has provided so much for me and in my life so much joy and opportunity to meet great people which has inspired me to want to make a difference in terms of giving back,” said John.

“People have done so much for me in my career, and I want to be able to do that for others. It has been a lot of fun, but we have so much more to look forward to.

Plans to explore new opportunities are already a regular topic of conversation in the Tavares’ household.

“We have some legacy projects we are looking at as well,” said Aryne.

“I think the only challenge with the foundation is turning your mind off,” she added with a laugh. “The wheels are constantly turning, and you are thinking of other ways to help make change. It’s tough to put aside.”

Perhaps getting out a journal, like they did in the days and weeks before the creation of the JTF, might be in store.

It was that approach which led to the formation of a game-changing foundation.

“Maybe we will do that,” said Aryne with a laugh.

Added John, “however we go about things, the goal is that we want to make a difference for a long time.”