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De La Salle Alumni Continuing the Legacy of Meagan's Hug

By: Emma De Tommaso (DEL 17)

Standing on the field at De La Salle in my Grade 9 year, I listened to Denise Bebenek speak, and tears welled up in my eyes. It was then that I first heard Meagan Bebenek’s story.  

Meagan’s HUG:  Creating A Circle of Hope is a Canadian registered charity with a mission to harness the power of community to raise awareness and funds for pediatric brain tumour research and to foster hope and improve outcomes for affected children and their families.  

The organization, which began as Meagan’s Walk in 2001, was founded by a mother, Denise Bebenek, who lost her daughter Meagan. Meagan was only four years old when she was diagnosed with an inoperable and malignant brain tumour. 

On Father’s Day 2001, only a few weeks past her fifth birthday, surrounded by her family, Meagan died. Leaving the hospital that day, leaving Meagan behind, Denise dreamed of joining hands in a human “hug,” a circle of hope around the hospital. Impelled by her own loss and vision, Denise founded Meagan’s Walk: Creating a Circle of Hope, now Meagan’s HUG.   

During Meagan’s diagnosis, treatment and following her death, Denise witnessed the power of a community that rallied around her entire family. The strength of that group helped the Bebenek family through challenging times. Feeling gratitude for those who had supported them on this journey, Denise knew that no family should walk this path alone.

When I had the opportunity to meet Denise and hear her speak, I had never before witnessed such strength, love and grace encompassed in one person. I learned that Meagan’s siblings had attended De La Salle, allowing our school community to grow with this incredible cause. 

As the entire De La Salle school community came together in a hug, I felt such a profound sense of purpose and belonging. I quickly convinced my parents to take me to the upcoming Meagan’s HUG event on Mother’s Day weekend at SickKids. Seeing a global presence of support in Toronto and looking up to all the children in the hospital windows solidified my desire to get involved.  

Emma De Tommaso (DEL 17) taking part in a Meagan's Hug event at the College.

Throughout the next three years, I grew with the Meagan’s HUG school program as a Meagan’s HUG Ambassador. I also learned that brain tumours are the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in children and young people under the age of 20, but that only 5% of the Canadian Government’s cancer funding reaches research into childhood cancers. 

I helped run our program at De La Salle through my role as Head of the Community Council, and I discovered the origins of Meagan’s HUG at the high school and elementary level. 

When Meagan was a student herself, her school was a big part of that community of support, rallying around the Bebenek family. Margaret, a Grade 8 student at the time, was reading Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, a story about a young girl diagnosed with leukemia following the bombing of Hiroshima. In Japanese legend, if a person folds one thousand paper cranes, they would be granted their wish. 

Inspired by Sadako and this legend, Margaret quietly began to fold origami cranes for Meagan, and soon their entire school was involved. One spring afternoon, the school community gathered in the schoolyard, forming a giant circle around Meagan. One by one, they presented their cranes, with colourful wings inscribed with messages of love and hope, to her. 

This act of compassion, kindness and support launched what would become The Crane Ceremony, a key component of our Meagan’s HUG School Program.

Without question, Meagan’s HUG was the most foundational experience of my high school career. It taught me to be kind, compassionate and empathetic. It showed me what true strength looked like and motivated me to turn my hardships into positive outcomes.  

As I left the comfort of my De La Salle community and embarked on my journey at the Schulich School of Business at York University, I tried hard to remember our motto of “Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve.” After a few years, I longed for the opportunity to give back and missed being part of the Meagan’s HUG community. I reached out to the Meagan’s HUG team to see if there was any way that I could get involved. Eventually, I was offered a spot on their School Program team. Set around teaching the values of compassion, kindness, acceptance and inclusion, the Meagan’s HUG School Program has been embraced by over 120,000 students over the years. Speaking at schools and sharing Meagan’s story was so important to me. I was able to connect with student ambassadors who were making a meaningful difference within their school community. Busier than ever with school and extracurriculars, I felt the most fulfilled that I had been at any other point in university.  

In the spring of 2020, we received an email from two Queens University students and De La Salle Alumni, Solyana Gedlu and Kristen Di Stefano, looking for guidance on how they could stay involved with Meagan’s HUG. It occurred to me that I was probably not the only student longing to maintain my connection with Meagan’s HUG once I left De La Salle.  

This simple email was the impetus for the Meagan’s HUG Post-Secondary Program, targeted at institutions across Ontario with dedicated students seeking a way to make a difference. My goal is to expand the program and embrace the hundreds of thousands of students across the province. With such an ambitious objective in mind, I sought out a team of like-minded students and instantly thought of reaching out to a group of dedicated De La Salle Alumni. Together, we developed the Meagan’s HUG Post-Secondary package, a valuable resource for students looking to get involved. This includes creative ideas about how to fundraise or raise awareness in your own school community.  

As we work to grow our program, we are reaching out to YOU, our dedicated De La Salle alumni. We would love to expand to your school community or have you remain a member of our Meagan’s HUG family in some capacity. Our program is flexible and can be adapted to your individual schools or organizations, including the workplace. Our university student ambassadors are always eager to help, so please feel free to contact them at any time. We hope that you will consider reaching out because we would love to have you.  

In order to come together safely yet apart, Meagan’s HUG will be hosting Honks for Hope Drive-In HUG on September 12, 2021. The event will begin with a car parade from Yorkdale Mall, ending at Downsview Park for a 60 to 90-minute live entertainment experience featuring internationally recognized award-winning Canadian singer-songwriters. Follow us on social media or sign up for our mailing list to receive more information.  

De La Salle students participating in Meagan's Hug Activities

With a focus on raising funds for life-changing pediatric brain tumour research, Meagan’s HUG has directed more than $5.8 million to the Brain Tumour Research Centre (BTRC) through SickKids Foundation. Over the years, Meagan’s HUG has funded many seed projects, resulting in seminal discoveries, improving diagnoses, treatments and outcomes for young patients. The BTRC hosts the only program in Canada dedicated to pediatric brain tumour research.  

These funds also support the Meagan HUG Neuro-oncology Fellowship, bringing clinical researchers from around the world to train for one year in Toronto, with one of the world’s largest pediatric brain tumour programs at SickKids. In July 2021, Meagan’s HUG will welcome its 8th Meagan’s HUG Fellow.”

Any donation helps in making a difference in the lives of hundreds of children suffering with a brain tumour and has a truly global impact.

Meagan’s HUG changed my life and provides me with a sense of pride and purpose every day. I know that there are incredible students at the post-secondary level and beyond who can make a difference, and we cannot wait to connect with you.


Contact Email: 


Donation Link: 

School program package:  

School program video: Why Bring Meagan’s HUG to Your School? 


Meet Our De La Salle Team!  


Alyssa Adamo, Class of 2017 

  • School: McMaster University, Class of 2021 
  • Program: Life Sciences 
  • Contact: 
  • Currently: Master of Science Program (Global Health) in the Faculty of Interdisciplinary Sciences, McMaster University  


Emma De Tommaso, Class of 2017 

  • School: York University, Class of 2021 
  • Program: Schulich School of Business, International Bachelor of Business Administration 
  • Contact: 
  • Currently: Leadership Development Program at Restaurant Brands International 


Jonathan Fortini, Class of 2017  

  • School: Western University, Class of 2021 
  • Program: Bachelor of Medical Sciences with a Specialization in Microbiology and Immunology 
  • Contact: 
  • Currently: University of Toronto Medical School Class of 2025 


Samantha Rizzi, Class of 2017  

  • School: Western University, Class of 2021 
  • Program: Ivey Business School, Honours Business Administration  
  • Contact: 
  • Currently: EY Advisory  


Francesca De Tommaso, Class of 2019 

  • School: Western University, Class of 2023 
  • Program: Ivey Business School, Honours Business Administration 
  • Contact: 


Kristen Di Stefano, Class of 2019 

  • School: Queens University, Class of 2023 
  • Program: Health Science 
  • Contact: 


Solyana Gedlu, Class of 2019 

  • School: Queens University, Class of 2023 
  • Program: Health Sciences  
  • Contact:  


Alex Mastromarini, Class of 2019 

  • School: Western University, Class of 2023 
  • Program: Ivey Business School, Honours Business Administration 
  • Contact: 


Daniel Rizzi, Class of 2020 

  • School: Western University, Class of 2024 
  • Program: Media, Information & Technoculture (MIT) and Gender Studies  
  • Contact: 
  • Summer 2021