Denise Bebenek, BA'83
Recipient of the 2023 Community Service Award
Denise’s commitment, courage and compassion have touched the lives of countless families around the world through her desire to make a difference for children and families affected by a brain tumour diagnosis.
Denise Bebenek is the founder of Meagan Bebenek Foundation, an organization that raises hope and awareness about paediatric brain tumours, and funds ground-breaking research into the number one cause of cancer-related death in children and young people up to age 20.
In 2000, Denise’s youngest child, Meagan, was diagnosed with an inoperable and malignant brain tumour. She died six months later, in June 2001, two weeks past her fifth birthday. As Denise left the hospital, she envisioned a hug encompassing the building, which inspired her to organize a five-kilometre walk and “hug” event.
Denise turned the tragic loss of her youngest daughter into a journey of hope and inspiration. With a deep-rooted belief that when we come together as a community we can make a collective difference, Denise has successfully harnessed that power for over two decades with a team of over 60 volunteers who work year-round to further the organization’s mission.
Asking friends and family to help, Denise started planning for the first Meagan’s Walk event which took place on Mother’s Day 2002. The annual event, now known as Meagan’s HUG, culminates with participants joining hands and forming a human hug around the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto, sending a clear and simple message to all within - you are not alone.
Today, Meagan Bebenek Foundation has grown into a thriving organization with multiple events, corporate sponsors, and a robust school program. The foundation has raised more than $6 million dollars in support of paediatric brain tumour research, which includes funding for seed grants, purchasing cutting-edge equipment, funding for the Toronto Brain Tumour Network tissue bank and a Neuro-oncology fellowship program.
Denise spent her career as an elementary school teacher and is also a talented musician who deeply believes in the healing power of music. In 1991 she won the SOCAN New Talent Demo Award and in 2019 released the single Love is a River: A Song for Meagan’s Walk.
Denise’s recognitions and awards are too numerous to list. Notably, she received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012, along with lifetime achievement awards and various honours for her volunteer efforts from local, provincial, and national organizations.
Denise volunteers in the Women’s Executive Network’s Mentoring Program, the RevolutionHER Mentoring Program, and serves on the De La Salle College Oaklands Board. As a sought-after speaker, she has shared her story and experience with several top 100 Canadian companies, and is often called upon as a patient advocate with groups like the Paediatric Brain Tumour Foundation of America, and the International Brain Tumour Alliance’s World Summit for Brain Tumour Advocates.
In 2022, at the onset of the conflict in Ukraine, Denise was called upon by an International collaboration led by St. Jude’s to provide practical support to families arriving in Toronto to continue cancer treatment under the care of SickKids.
Denise’s humility, vision and kindness provides immeasurable support for families facing significant challenge and loss. Denise is resolute in her mission to help others and is deeply deserving of Western Alumni’s Community Service Award.