Even as she was fighting cancer, Julie Burke wanted Father Henri Voisin school to be a community where no-one was without a friend.
She dreamed of a ‘friendship bench’ at her Red Deer school. It’s place where any student who was lonely could sit, and others would rally around them and ask that student to join them at lunch or in activities on the playground.
Now, a year-and-a-half after the 10-year-old died of alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, a type of soft tissue cancer, it’s become a reality.
“It was her idea,” said Julie’s father Michael. “When she was in the Stollery Children’s Hospital she said ‘Dad do you know what a friendship bench is?’ and I said no … She hoped that it would help kids be kind to each other. There was not one person Julie wasn’t friends with. She would just tell kids ‘Hey we’re friends whether you like it or not!’”
Julie Burke was diagnosed with cancer in January of 2019, and she died five months later on June 23. Her dad paid for the bench and it was built by a friend whose daughter was one of Julie’s classmates.
On Sept. 19, the Julie Burke Memorial Bench was unveiled to the Father Henri Voisin School community and blessed by Rev. Jan Sobkowicz, the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Red Deer. Teachers and administrators from Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools, and Grade 5 student leaders attended as did Julie’s family. Julie was the youngest of four children.
Julie’s former Grade 4 teacher, Jessica Maloughney, hopes the bench will be a symbol of the kind of person Julianna (who preferred to be called Julie) was. The inscription reads simply “Just Be Brave.”
“Even though Julianna is no longer here with us, she lives on in all of our hearts,” Maloughney said.
“When a student is brave enough to sit on the bench, waiting for a friend – Julie will be there with them. When one of you sees someone sitting on this bench, and invites them to play – Julie will be with you too.”
The Julie Burke Memorial Bench faces the school playground, and school administrators say it reminds students at Father Henri Voisin School that nothing is more important than friendship and kindness.
“We feel extremely blessed and privileged to have been provided this bench by the Burke family,” said principal Jeff Tuchscherer. “It will honour Julie’s memory and provide a powerful reminder of the value of friendship, as well as the importance of bravery. Present and future students will vastly benefit from this legacy of a child that lived her life with steadfast love in her heart for all.”
Father Henri Voisin School serves more than 385 pre-Kindergarten to Grade 5 students.