Distinction, by definition, is a difference or contrast that makes someone stand out. And Sharon Babineau knows all about that.

Babineau has swum against the current for most of her life. In high school in the 1970s, she was the first of three girls to take auto mechanics, sparking a discussion about whether female students should be allowed in such classes.

In 1979, the Supreme Court of Canada told the Canadian Armed Forces that it couldn't discriminate against women anymore.  Babineau, a nominee at Hamilton's YWCA Women of Distinction gala Thursday for the Turning Point award, joined and became one of a small group female mechanics to travel to Europe with NATO as part of a trial called Service Women in Non-Traditional and Environmental Roles.

Her male colleagues — some 4,000 of them — weren't used to seeing a woman. Some were accepting. Others called the 22-year-old vulgar names, rigged her truck, put dead rats in her toolbox and told her she was taking a job away from a man.

"There were moments that I cried, when it got so emotional that I went back to my tent," she said. "There were times I wanted to quit."

Rare female mechanic

When she looked for mechanics jobs when she got back, people threw her resume in the garbage. In 1989, while serving at the National Defence Medical Centre in Ottawa, she became engaged to Stephen Babineau, who developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The doctor told her not to marry her fiancé. She did anyway. He lived another nine years, and they had two children.

In 2004, she got sick while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to raise money for ALS research. She had an adverse reaction to the high altitude medication. She finished the climb anyway, sending back dispatches to her children's school as she did it.

That same year, Babineau's 12-year-old daughter Maddison, or Maddie, was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer. When the Children's Wish Foundation offered Maddie a wish, Maddie said she wanted to build a school in Kenya. She also raised money for a drinking well by selling jewelry from her hospital bed.

Babineau's daughter died in her arms in 2007.

The Templemead Drive resident admits that Maddie's death nearly destroyed her. 

Praying for purpose

"I had to figure out why I was even here," she said. "I really for the first time got on my knees and prayed, and said, 'Why am I here? What am I supposed to be doing?'"

Babineau has founded a non-profit organization known as Maddie's Everlasting Wish, which raises money for youth causes at home and abroad.

In 2008, Babineau established Mad 4 Maddie, which holds annual five-kilometre runs that have raised about $200,000 in total since then. The next Hamilton run is May 25 at St. Thomas More high school on Upper Paradise.

She also established MAD B4 Grad, which challenges high school students to commit an act of kindness to another person before graduation. Hundreds have taken part.

Babineau has spoken to more than 20,000 students about Maddie's message. She also has a motivational company called Mindbreak. Her new book, The Girl Who Gave Her Wish Away, was released this spring. She is also writing a children's book, Winston the Wish Warrior, which stars the family dog.

Turning points

Babineau is nominated for the award that recognizes a woman "who has lived through hardship and adversity and finds motivation in her experience to make a difference in the lives of others. This woman inspires others by sharing the power of her own turning point in life."

Timea Nagy, Sharon Gallant and Laura Cattari are also nominees in her category.

The YWCA ceremony honours 55 women in categories such as education and mentorship, arts and culture and health and active living. The ceremony is at Carmen's Banquet Centre from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.

All of the nominees are inspiring, said Babineau, whose other accolades include a Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal.

"Just to be in this room with all these women…we're all so much more powerful than we think," she said. "I think sometimes that we underplay what we do. It's important for people to know in this crazy world of seven billion that we can all make a difference, and that means every one of us.