by Julie Harrison
photos by John Major
As an entrepreneur, wife, mother and, last but not least, community advocate, Denise Siele is a woman who makes things happen. and the community of Ottawa is better off for it.
“I’d campaigned hard,” shares Denise Siele, describing one of her first experiences in the realm of community advocacy. “And I’d strategically gone for the most unglamorous role on the university student council so I’d have a better chance of winning. I even had what I considered to be a brilliant speech prepared. That’s how confident I was that I’d win.”
She lost. For a young woman coming out of high school with kudos and soaring grades, it was devastating. But she approached the winning candidate and let her know she’d be happy to help out if she ever needed it. As it turns out, she did. And Denise ended up taking over the role on student council.
“It was a lucky break,” says Denise. But really, there’s nothing lucky about her achievements. What’s evident is a woman who finds opportunities, leans right in, and then works with the energy of five people instead of one.
The list of community and volunteer roles Denise has taken on here in Ottawa over the past 15 years is as long as a basketball player’s arm. Currently, though, she is a board member with the Youth Services Bureau (YSB) of Ottawa Charitable Foundation, the past co-president and now a board member with the Fund for a New Generation, founder of the annual Vivante fundraiser in support of CHEO, and immediate past vice-chair of Equal Voice Ottawa.
She’s busy, right? A person could get tired just reading about it all. But the roles don’t end there. Denise is also a committed wife and mother, as well as managing partner of SEM Group, a business that provides public relations and strategic events management for organizations across Canada.
Making Things Happen
“A key moment for me when it came to volunteering,” says Denise, “was becoming aware that I was not just giving … I was actually getting a lot of satisfaction out of it. I realized that I really enjoyed making things happen.”
So now, both personally and professionally, Denise literally makes things happen. Her company, which she started up in 2004, creates award-winning strategic events. From the United Nations Association’s Healthy Children, Healthy Communities National Roundtable to the Ottawa Bluesfest, Denise leads the SEM Group’s strategic events planning and public relations projects. “I always loved organizing community and fundraising events as a volunteer,” explains Denise. “Now I feel so fortunate that I travel coast to coast and have the opportunity to play a role in some of Canada’s most exciting events.”
Ottawa by Choice, not Birth
Living in Ottawa is a conscious choice for Denise. She moved to this city from Nairobi, Kenya, when she was 13 years old and has since chosen to stay. Her mother, a diplomat, had been posted to Canada’s capital city in 1991. When the posting was complete in 1996 Denise was 18 years old and elected to stay while her family moved back overseas.
Why did she stay? A sparkle takes over her eyes and she says, “I met a boy.” This boy, Fred, is now Denise’s husband. Together they have a seven-year-old son, also named Fred after his father and grandfather before him. It’s clear that both boys are the lights of Denise’s life.
“I love Ottawa, and I tell my son all the time that Canada is the best place on Earth,” says Denise. “And if you love your community, you are involved in it and you keep working to make it better.”
It Takes a Village
It might sound trite, but in speaking with Denise, Toni Morrison’s words come to mind: “I don’t think one parent can raise a child. I don’t think two parents can raise a child. You really need the whole village.”
“A while back,” says Denise, “I realized that I really needed to focus on where I put my volunteering hours and energy. I just couldn’t do it all and had started to receive a lot of requests. That’s when I chose my focus – youth.” As one of the Youth Services Bureau Charitable Foundation’s first board members, Denise has seen firsthand how an organization can make a difference for at-risk youth.
“After seeing how critical the YSC’s services are to youth in our community, I am willing to do whatever I can to help.” She means it. To that end, she corralled a group of volunteers to raise money and awareness for the YSB by sleeping outside overnight in bone-chilling -30 C weather last winter.
Whether she’s sleeping out in the cold or applying her smarts and education to a cause, Denise believes it’s just a part of being in a community. She may not think she’s doing anything special really, but she is.
Young at Heart
Denise focuses her community work on charities that help youth of all stripes in Ottawa. These are the charities closest to her heart: • Youth Service Bureau of Ottawa (www.ysb.on.ca): YSB provides a range of innovative services that support and empower youth and have a lasting impact on the Ottawa community.
• The Fund for a New Generation (ottawagala. com): Established since 1993, this not-for-profit supports Ottawa’s underprivileged youth by hosting an annual gala.
• Vivante (www.vivantegala.com): With the theme “Live to Give. Joie de Vivre” this spectacular annual celebration of style, culture, gastronomy and diversity raises funds for CHEO. It began as Denise’s unique way to celebrate her birthday.
How to Get Involved
Denise may have begun her community involvement at a young age, but it’s never too late to get started. She offers the following advice for Ottawans looking to make a difference:
Find your passion and doors will open! Whether it’s volunteering with the parent council at your child’s school, engaging with your church, supporting your local food bank or getting involved in your neighbourhood association, it’s surprising how a simple “How can I help?” can make a difference. The joy of giving and community is abundant all around us; why not be a part of it?