2002 • Health Award

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South African born Vanessa Melman -Yakobson, received the Health Award, for her role in leading the campaign in the identification and promotion of the unique needs of pediatric cancer patients and their families.

Vanessa’s campaign to raise awareness of the issues surrounding children with cancer began when she discovered a lump on her neck while on a visit to South Africa in 1984 and was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease on her return to Toronto. Though only 13 years old, she was convinced that her illness was an experience she was meant to go through, and that she was to learn and teach others as a result.

Vanessa became actively involved with the Terry Fox Foundation, acting as a Terry’s Team Member who traveled to schools across York Region, raising awareness for the Foundation and delivering the message that “cancer can be beaten”while in high school. She also initiated a drug education group, which used drama as a teaching tool and helped lead an annual sexual assault seminar. Her work was recognized with a Town of Markham Civic Recognition Award. She was voted Valedictorian and received a Terry Fox Humanitarian Award scholarship to University.

She continued to raise funds the Terry Fox Foundation as well as for other causes while studying drama at the University of Toronto.
Upon graduation, she joined the Cott Corporation as a Client Services Manager in their marketing group and later the Monitor Company. While there she initiated a fundraiser for the Terry Fox Foundation which became an annual effort, even beyond her employment at the companies.

Vanessa completed her MBA studies at the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago.

She joined Procter & Gamble as an Assistant Brand Manager upon graduation. Once again, she recognized the opportunity to leverage the corporation for fundraising purposes and the Terry Fox Run event there raised $20,000 in its first year. To date, the companies where Vanessa has initiated Terry Fox fundraising activities have raised a total of approximately $100,000.

In 1994, she was invited by her oncologist, Dr. Mark Greenberg, one of the founders of Pediatric Oncology Group of Ontario (POGO), to chair a Survivor Cluster Group to contribute to a White Paper that was being prepared for the Ontario Ministry of Health on pediatric cancer care and control. The initiative was called the Provincial Pediatric Oncology Working Group, and advocated on behalf of the survivor and patient populations.

Years later, POGO approached for help with fundraising. Vanessa and her father agreed to support these efforts and launched a campaign to secure the $2 million required to establish the POGO Chair in Childhood Cancer Control. This goal has been accomplished thanks to her and those of her father and the POGO Young Leadership Fundraising Committee, which she founded and Chairs.

Today, with the support of POGO staff and the fund raising evnts supported by corporations, foundations and many individuals, that endowment sits at close to $3 million. What is also of great significance is that there has been a tremendous increase in the awareness of POGO and of the issues surrounding pediatric cancer.

She is currently POGO’s Development Officer and is working to establish the POGO Childhood Cancer Foundation which will support the Chair, as well as POGO’s staff symposium, and Research Unit.
Vanessa ends her autobiographical account of her experiences, entitled Survival with, “I will survive”.

Over the years, she has come to recognize the value of not only surviving, but thriving, and of striving to live life to the fullest. She also remains passionately committed to the idea of giving back. Her goal now, is to translate the skills learned in her graduate studies and corporate experiences, along with her experience as a patient and survivor of childhood cancer, to ensure that all children with cancer, and their families, receive equal access to state-of-the-art care, and to find ways to beat this disease and its aftermath.

Vanessa states: “I feel blessed for having found this point of convergence. This is the point at which my premonition - that I must learn from my experience with Hodgkin’s Disease and teach others as a result - comes true.”

South African Women for Women salutes Vanessa Yakobson for raising our level of awareness of the many issues impacting children with cancer and their families and her extraordinary fundraising efforts.