Honoring Tess Canja: A Legacy of Exceptional Volunteerism

Posted on 04/29/24 by AARP Florida

During the recent Volunteer Leader’s Training meeting, AARP Florida had the honor of presenting the inaugural Esther “Tess” Canja Award for exceptional volunteerism, a tribute to the remarkable legacy of one of our most beloved advocates. The award was presented posthumously to Tess Canja's daughter, Deb Canja, in recognition of her mother's unwavering dedication and tireless commitment to serving others.

“In honoring Tess Canja with this prestigious award, we pay tribute to her extraordinary legacy and celebrate her enduring spirit of service,” said Jeff Johnson, AARP Florida State Director. “While Tess may no longer be with us in person, her legacy lives on through the countless lives she touched and the profound impact she made on the world around her.”

Tess Canja was more than just a volunteer; she was a driving force behind AARP's mission to empower older adults and improve the quality of life for people as they age. Throughout her illustrious career, Tess embodied the spirit of volunteerism, devoting countless hours to advocating for issues that mattered most to older Americans.

After retiring as executive director of the Area Agencies on Aging Association of Michigan, she relocated to Port Charlotte, Florida, where she became active in issues that could benefit Florida’s 50+ community. Tess is credited for helping launch the Florida Department of Elder Affairs and chaired the citizen’s oversight advisory committee. Soon after, she became the state president of AARP Florida, and later in 2000, was elected to the national board, serving as AARP’s national president.

“There wasn’t a topic or issue she didn’t talk about and advocate for,” said Deb Canja, daughter of Tess. “My mother's unwavering compassion and genuine dedication touched the lives of everyone she met, leaving an enduring mark on all fortunate enough to know her.”

As a former AARP National President and Michigan State President, Tess was a trailblazer in the field of aging advocacy, championing initiatives to enhance healthcare, promote financial security, and combat age discrimination. Her leadership and vision helped shape AARP into the influential organization it is today, leaving an indelible mark on the lives of millions of older adults across the country.

“Tess's impact extended far beyond the boardroom; she was deeply involved in her local community, volunteering her time and expertise to support numerous charitable causes and organizations,” added Johnson. “Her authentic empathy and steadfast commitment left an enduring mark on all those fortunate enough to cross paths with her and who had the privilege of knowing her.”

In addition to her leadership within AARP, Tess played a pivotal role in advocating for legislation that directly benefited older Americans. Her tireless efforts contributed to the passage of key laws aimed at protecting the rights and well-being of older adults, including measures to improve access to healthcare, enhance financial security, and safeguard against age discrimination in the workplace. Through her advocacy work, Tess helped ensure that older Americans had a voice in the halls of power, championing policies that promoted dignity, independence, and equality for people of all ages.


“As we reflect on Tess's remarkable life and legacy, let us be inspired to follow in her footsteps, embracing the power of volunteerism to create positive change in our communities and make a difference in the lives of others,” said Ken Thomas, AARP Florida state president. “Today, we honor Tess not only for her remarkable achievements but also for the enduring values of compassion, generosity, and service that she embodied.”

Beginning in 2025, the Tess Canja Award will be presented annually to an AARP Florida volunteer who embodies the spirit and leadership of its namesake.

This story is provided by AARP Florida. Visit the AARP Florida page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.

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