Stephen Breen Memorial Foundation provides aid for Catholic school tuition, families affected by childhood cancer

North Texas Catholic
(May 8, 2024) Local

boys playing basketball

Students shoot baskets at a game booth at the Spirit Games at Nolan Catholic High School on April 28, 2024. The games are an annual event put on for the youth of the Diocese of Fort Worth by the Stephen Breen Memorial Foundation. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)


FORT WORTH — It’s been nearly 20 years since 15-year-old Stephen Breen died from bone cancer, and the foundation he envisioned has been made a reality by his family and continues to offer tuition assistance to Catholic school students and to assist children who are battling cancer and their families.

On Oct. 4, 2004, after battling for 16 months Ewing sarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of bone cancer, the sophomore at Nolan Catholic High School died. But his legacy of philanthropy, selfless dedication, and wholehearted devotion to the Catholic faith continues to live in the good works of the Stephen Breen Memorial Foundation.

Stephen's father, Jim Breen, recalls how his son's vision came to be and the impact it has had on the Catholic community.

“When Stephen relapsed with cancer, he knew he was going to die. We knew he was going to die, and we talked about creating a foundation,” Jim Breen said. “We had a whiteboard in our kitchen, and he wrote on it: ‘If you’re going to create a foundation in my memory, here’s two things I want to do.’”

Those two things? Tuition assistance for Catholic school students and aid for patients and families affected by childhood cancer.

“Not everybody who wants a Catholic school education for their children can afford it,” Breen recalled his son, a St. Andrew Catholic School graduate, saying. “So, help those people make that affordable.”

Stephen also said, “A lot of folks did a lot of nice things for me when I had cancer. I’ve got to pay that back, you know, help other kids who are being treated for cancer.”

Breen said his son’s wishes were clear.

“He specified the two missions, and so we’re just trying to honor his wishes since then,” Breen affirmed.

“He was a pretty positive kid,” Breen reflected. “Obviously, it wasn’t all roses, and he wouldn’t always stay positive. There were some pretty low moments, like losing his hair from chemo that he had to take and being isolated in a hospital room for nearly 30 straight days when he had a stem cell transplant. There were some low points for sure, but he managed to persevere through them.”

A Vision Realized

Now, almost 20 years since the foundation’s founding, Breen reflected on what it has accomplished.

“We’re still at it, and every year we’re hoping to be able to provide a little bit more assistance so it keeps trending in the right direction,” he said. “The bottom line is there’s over 3,000 kids who have benefited in some way, shape, or form from Stephen’s Foundation, and that’s the achievement.”

Fr. Brett Metzler celebrates Mass
Father Brett Metzler celebrated the Mass opening the Spirit Games at Nolan Catholic High School on April 28, 2024. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

The foundation raises money with its sponsored events, including the Spirit Games, which took place April 28 at Nolan. Other events include the Giving Wings Dinner, Wildcat Challenge Basketball Tournament, Swing “Fore” Stephen Golf Tournament, and the Rahr Brewery Party.

Volunteers staff the foundation, and more than 95 percent of the income is distributed to nonprofit organizations benefiting children in need.

The largest recipients of the foundation’s funds are students in the 17 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Fort Worth. Other recipients include: cancer patients at Cook Children’s Hospital; a cancer patient room at Cook Children’s dedicated to Stephen’s memory; Ronald McDonald House in Fort Worth, where the foundation sponsored a room for families of patients at Cook Children’s; and the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

Since 2004, the foundation has donated a total of $2,044,278 in tuition assistance to 3,083 pupils, making it the second largest source of financial aid to diocesan Catholic school students.

The nonprofit has provided financial assistance totaling $324,855 for 241 children battling cancer.

Last year, $10,000 in college scholarships was awarded to three students, and, cumulatively, 35 students have received a total of $105,000 in scholarship funding.

The Cook’s Children Cancer Patient Room, Ronald McDonald House Cancer Patient Family Room, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation have also received upwards of $100,000.

In all, Stephen’s wish has amounted to providing $2,469,133 in assistance to 3,324 children, the foundation said. 

Breen set a goal for the foundation to reach $10 million to aid with its mission.

A Legacy of Good

Renée Underwood , the chief development officer of the Advancement Foundation of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth, said the work done by the Stephen Breen Memorial Foundation is inspirational and truly grassroots in nature.

“They host this dinner at St. Patrick Parish Hall, and you want to talk about an event that inspires and uplifts and makes those who attend become better people," she said. "You become an advocate; you become a champion for their work."

girl with squirt gun
Children play with water at one of the Spirit Game booths at Nolan Catholic High School on April 28, 2024. The Stephen Breen Memorial Foundation is the second largest source of financial aid to diocesan Catholic school students. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

Shannon Irwin, current diocesan athletic director and former gym teacher at St. Andrew, said the Spirit Games has become a popular event that not only raises funds for the foundation but also gives families in the diocese an outlet to have faith-centered fun with a variety of entertainment.

The event is like a fall festival in format, with games, events, activities, and music, Irwin said.

“Lately, we’ve been averaging anywhere from 800 to 1,000 [people],” Irwin observed.

She’s hopeful that the event will be a way to attract more students to Catholic education.

“I’d really love to grow this event. ... We want to tap into parish families with the hopes that they will later choose Catholic education for their children,” Irwin expressed. “We have so many families that don’t attend our schools that we really want to connect with and build a relationship and bring us all together.

“It’s just a very fun-filled time,” she continued. “We always start with Mass first, and we always end with an inspirational message to the youth to ‘Go forth and choose the way of God.’”

Rose Hall Welborn, longtime director of development of St. Andrew, said she has known Jim Breen for about 30 years.

She said Stephen's Foundation and the work of his family has been an amazing support system for many families in the diocese.

"He has always had that servant's heart," she said of Jim Breen. "I feel very strongly that Stephen was mimicking his father. His father and his mother showed him that example."

Welborn said Stephen's example is moving.

She explained, "Most children, especially at that age, they really only think about themselves — and he was in a lot of misery. This young man actually was really thinking about others even on his deathbed. That alone is just absolutely amazing to me that he was always one of those kids that really put others first. He really had a servant's heart."

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