Denise’s Dodgers: Dodgeball Tournament Targets ALS, Raises Funds in Honor of Beloved Illinois Woman

Denise's Dodgers
In a photo from last year’s tournament, Mr. Benyo smiles with his wife, Denise, who is wearing a special shirt declaring her team name — Denise’s Dodgers.

Looking for a way to make an impact? Look no further than Dodgin’ for Lou Gehrig’s Disease, an Illinois fundraiser for ALS that is as impactful as you can get — literally.

It’s a dodgeball tournament.

Started six years ago by then-seventh graders Delaney Gibbons and Taylor Morrissey, this charity event does a lot of good, while also being a really good time.

“It was a fun way to bring community all together,” Delaney says of the tournament, which takes place in the gym at Naperville North High School.

And it was all inspired by a special couple — Taylor and Delaney’s PE teacher, Chris Benyo, and his wife Denise DiMarzo. Denise was diagnosed with ALS soon after they got married.

“He was always one of our favorite teachers in elementary school,” Taylor says about Chris, or as she calls him, Mr. Benyo. “He was someone we had always looked up to. When we heard the terrible news that Denise was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, we wanted to help out.”

Denise's Dodgers
Delaney and Taylor pose with awards during last year’s tournament.

Denise made a big impression on both girls and often attended the tournaments in her wheelchair, laughing as rubber balls whizzed across the gym. Delaney remembers one moment with Denise vividly.

It was last year, during the beginning of the competition and Mr. Benyo had just finished speaking. It had been tough to keep the amped crowd quiet — until Denise approached the microphone in her wheelchair. ALS weakens and paralyzes voluntary muscles, like those used in breathing and speaking, and her disease had progressed to the point where she could only talk through a special computer.

“That was probably the very first time that everybody was completely silent, when Denise was saying thank you through her machine,” Delaney recalls. “I think it just really hit everybody that what we were doing was for her.”

She passed away last year. And this year, at the request of Mr. Benyo, the event benefitted the MDA.

“Mr. Benyo asked us if we would do it [raise funds for the MDA], because he said that the MDA throughout Denise’s journey with this disease helped a lot and was really good with her,” Delaney says.

When the dust settled and the last ball was thrown on Friday, Taylor and Delaney tallied almost $30,000 raised in Denise’s honor.

Denise's Dodgers
During last year’s tournament, a girl hurls a ball across the court, attempting to take out a player on the opposite team.

Now, Taylor and Delaney are graduating and heading to college, which means that Friday’s event was their last one as organizers, while also being their first without Denise’s presence.

But she, and what both girls experienced at the events over the years, will always be in their hearts.

“Whenever I saw Denise at a tournament, she always had a smile on her face and never was in a bad mood. That always stuck out to me,” Taylor says. “I’ve always looked up to her for that. Whenever I’m in a bad mood or something, I always think about her and what she was going through and how she was positive through it.”

Help fund research for treatments and cures for ALS and all neuromuscular diseases.