Billy's Bear Hugs live on through Teddy Bear Toss

By Teresa Weakley | Originally published by WOOD TV on January 18, 2019.

BYRON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Teddy bears will fill the ice Friday night at the game between the Grand Rapids Catholic Central and Byron Center High School hockey teams.

The event, which started almost 20 years ago with amateur and pro club games, has caught on locally at a younger level.

Danny Nelson, a Catholic Central senior and captain of the Cougars hockey team, was inspired as a freshman by the Grand Rapids Griffins teddy bear toss.

"I was like, I want to be out there on the ice picking up the bears or scoring the goal,” Nelson explained.

He didn't know at the time about a player who was a captain more than a decade before him at the same school, Billy Wondergem.

Billy Wondergem graduated from Catholic Central and Calvin College then went on to work at a cancer genetics lab. That's where he discovered a rare gene that could change the way doctors diagnose kidney cancer.

The discovery cleared the way for him to go to medical school for pediatric oncology, but before he got the chance, Billy Wondergem died suddenly in his sleep in October 2010. He was 24 years old.

Billy Wondergem's younger brother, Charlie, remembers getting the call and trying to process the unexpected news.

"We immediately thought about how we could continue his legacy and when we thought about what we wanted to do. When we lost him, I saw it to be not just a loss to our family but to the entire medical community,” Charlie Wondergem said.

He was in his dorm room trying to study for finals right after his brother's memorial when his friends showed up with a Build-a-Bear they had made just for him.

“Here I am in my college dorm sitting there with a teddy bear on my lap and in that moment, it made all the difference,” Chalie Wondergem said.

Billy was also known for his big bear hugs, and so was born the Billy Bear Hug Foundation.

The Foundation gives teddy bears and care packages to children and families at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, Bronson Children's Hospital, Hospice of Michigan, Gilda’s Club, Ronald McDonald House of West Michigan and other organizations serving children.

Charlie Wondergem calls it a living tribute to his brother. Other organizations raise money for research, but he believes this was a way for a small organization to have a big impact.

When he heard about Nelson's teddy bear toss at Catholic Central, he got in touch and the two started working together. He recruited one of his youth advisory board members, Jake Onstott, to help as well.

Between Nelson's work organizing the toss, and Onstott's work on the board, they have both gained a new understanding of what so many children are going through and how something like this can help.

"You see kids battling cancer with tons of wires and needles in them, holding their bear. It's just a teddy bear, but it means so much. You can see it in their eyes. So, it's really cool,” Nelson explained.

The two are both honored to carry on Billy Wondergem's legacy of showing comfort and care to everyone around him.

Seeing kids get involved in the effort and witness first-hand the impact their work can have is priceless for Charlie Wondergem, who knows his brother would be proud.

"I remember being in middle school being in this very same rink, watching my brother net a goal, watching my brother put on the [Catholic Central] jersey and lead his team out there. I think all of these years have passed, but in some respects, Billy hasn't left this rink,” Charlie Wondergem said.

The Byron Center-Catholic Central game starts at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Southside Ice Arena, located on 100th Street near US-131 in Byron Township.

A Bear Hug Across the Globe: Spreading the Cure of Comfort Worldwide

A Bear Hug Across the Globe: Spreading the Cure of Comfort Worldwide

By Caroline Roth, BBH Youth Advisory Board

In June, I had the amazing opportunity to help spread Billy Bear Hug’s cure of comfort around the world. Henry Vanderzyden, Co-VP of the Youth Advisory Board, accompanied me on a trip to Ecuador, and we experienced first-hand the effect and joy our bears bring to children and their families.

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Catholic Central & East Grand Rapids Hockey Teams Host Teddy Bear Toss Benefitting Two Local Organizations

Catholic Central & East Grand Rapids Hockey Teams  Host Teddy Bear Toss Benefitting Two Local Organizations

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – When Catholic Central (CC) junior Danny Nelson organized the hockey team’s “Teddy Bear Toss” last December at a game against Forest Hills Central, he didn’t know the story of Billy Wondergem, a former member and captain of CC’s hockey team, or how that too related to teddy bears. Wondergem, a captain of the CC hockey team from 2003-2004, died unexpectedly in his sleep in 2010, shortly before starting medical school. His family and friends formed the Billy Bear Hug Foundation to provide teddy bears to children with life-threatening illnesses (a tribute to his desire to pursue a career in pediatric oncology).

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The Power of a Bear Hug

By Charlie Wondergem, BBH Board Member

As we mark the 5-year anniversary of the Billy Bear Hug organization and what would be my brother's 30th birthday, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has made this possible. I cannot tell you what it means to me, my family, and my brother’s friends to be able to create such a meaningful tribute to the brother, son and friend we loved so dearly. To our board members, the high school students involved with our Youth Advisory Board, the health care professionals, to all who have sponsored our events, volunteered, or purchased a bear for a sick child, thank you

I’d like to take you back to the summer of 2010. My brother, Billy, a recent college grad and cancer researcher at the Van Andel Institute, was putting the finishing touches on his med school application, that included among other accomplishments, a breakthrough discovery into a gene with the potential to change the way kidney cancer is diagnosed, and a personal statement, that laid out his plans for one day becoming a pediatric oncologist, expressing a vision for bridging the personal touch with the science behind medical care. Unfortunately, those plans wouldn’t be fully realized. Just a few months later, Billy was ripped from our lives, leaving many of us wondering, how will we pick back up, and carry forward?

I was reading over some old messages recently, and came across one that someone had sent us in the wake of my brother's loss. 

"It’s been said that, ‘Everyday people come into our lives, Many we know, Many we've never met, Some we remember, Some we forget, Others through, their efforts will leave a lasting impression.’ I first met Billy Wondergem on August 19th of this year. A conversation that has left a lasting impression on my life. We discussed meeting the needs of others through research and his career plans. A hug was exchanged in parting. It was realized, the genuine love Billy had for humanity: he shined, was on a mission to change lives and it was real ... One thing known for certain is, we never lose the ones we love. They continue to participate in every act, thought and decision we make. Their love leaves an indelible imprint in our memories. Comfort is found in knowing that our lives have been enriched by having shared their love."  

My brother could be described as many things. A talented hockey player; an avid skier; a skilled fly fisherman; an extremely bright scientist, one of only a few undergraduates to become the lead author on breakthrough medical research; but above all, he was loving, caring, and extremely passionate about what he did. He had a smile that could light up a room, and an incredible heart. And when it came to his career, he recognized that the dominant emotion when facing illness and tragedy is fear. He wanted to help children fight for a cure, but more importantly to give them peace and dignity during the fight and even more so when a cure might not be possible. He was able to see beyond just the scientific aspects of medicine, to recognize the need for a deeper, more personal connection in the caregiving process. This really gets to the heart of what we aim to do with Billy Bear Hug. We may not be on the front lines delivering medical care, but in being there with these kids and their families in their fight, offering a slight distraction from all the pokes and pain and emotion, we can ensure that childhood illness is a journey no child or family ever endures alone.

We recently received a note from Dr. David Dickens at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital:

“I spent the last week taking care of a very sick young child who was new to our system. After a few days of stabilizing her, I noticed that every morning she had one arm draped over the shoulders of one of your bears. I asked her mom whether she received it from us or brought it from home. The mother responded, ‘She got it on the day she arrived, and it hasn’t left her side. It is the ONLY thing that has brought her comfort.’”

The young patient wrote us a card, thanking us for her "new best friend 'Teddy'", and asking us to continue providing bears to sick kids. 

The generosity of so many has enabled us to provide bedside companions to thousands of children right here in West Michigan. Just last week, we announced our latest partnership with Bronson Children’s Hospital down in Kalamazoo, the first expansion hospital in the history of BBH. All of this has been made possible through the support of so many generous donors. Beyond what we’re doing in hospitals and hospice, your dollars are also helping to inspire the next generation of philanthropists, doctors, and community leaders. Through our Youth Advisory Board program, local high school students give of their time to BBH through hospital visits and fundraisers, and in return are provided with unique opportunities to meet with doctors, business leaders, and other members of the community as they explore ways to channel their talents into meaningful careers of service to others. Looking at this group of bright and compassionate young leaders, it’s hard not to feel good about the future.

It’s been a tremendous privilege for us to share a piece of Billy through this organization. I remember shortly after we lost him, my biggest fear was that when things settled, people would forget him; who he was, and the life that he led. But when I see the incredible generosity and dedication of everyone who has become involved with us, I can safely say that hasn’t happened. Because of you, each time a child receives a hug from a bear, or a care package full of items; they’re reminded that they’re not alone in their fight, and my brother’s life and legacy carries on. 



Billy Bear Hug Announces Partnership with Bronson Children's Hospital

Billy Bear Hug Announces Partnership with Bronson Children's Hospital

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – The William B. Wondergem Foundation for Children (d/b/a “Billy Bear Hug” or “BBH”) today announced a new partnership with Bronson Children’s Hospital in Kalamazoo. Through the new arrangement, BBH teddy bears and care packages will be distributed to patients of the 44-bed children’s hospital. This marks the first expansion for the West Michigan non-profit since its founding in 2011.

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'Words Have Power': Area Student Raises Money and Awareness through Essay Contest

The essay below was written by Alec Palmer, a junior at Spring Lake High School, for an assignment in his Advanced Composition class titled "Words Have Power". Students were tasked with writing an MLA Research Paper on a non-profit of their choice, and then deciding the top essays in the class through a voting process. The top three essays received a cash award to give to the organization. Thank you, Alec and Spring Lake Public Schools! 

In life, it seems the most innocent can often be the victim of unwarranted hardship.

Cancer is a disease that strikes with little warning or reason; the journey after a diagnosis being long and emotionally difficult. In old age one can accept this fate and fight cancer knowing they had the opportunity to live a long and purposeful life, but when diagnosed as a child, the challenges yet to come are much more difficult to deal with. The Billy Bear Hug Foundation was created with this in mind, to help give children suffering with chronic illness here in West Michigan an opportunity to find comfort in knowing they are not walking the difficult road through treatment alone. This organization was started by Charlie Wondergem in order to honor the loss of his older brother, and it focuses more on the personal side of cancer treatment, rather than the medical. The Billy Bear Hug Foundation is a nonprofit organization that is partnered with the Grand Rapids Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital as well as Hospice of Michigan, to help provide emotional support and lend strength to children going through cancer treatment. What they try to achieve in the lives of children and families across West Michigan is self-explanatory. “Our mission is simple: to give the cure of comfort to children with life limiting illnesses” (Billy Bear Hug). Whether it’s giving teddy bears to children, granting a child’s final wish, or giving a role model for children to look up to, the Billy Bear Hug Foundation focuses on making children feel less like patients and more like you and me.

Not many people realize, but childhood cancer is a growing problem here in the U.S. and is a subject that cannot be ignored. “In 2014 it is expected that overall, 1 in 285 children will be diagnosed with cancer before age 20” (People Against Childhood Cancer). This statistic is staggering. So many children are affected by the various forms of this disease, which leads to an even greater need for programs like The Billy Bear Hug Foundation. Think about all of the children that do not have the opportunity to receive the support and strength this foundation offers. With the rate of diagnosis continuing to increase, we need to focus on helping these children through their illness and supporting them in their fight. The Billy Bear Hug Foundation helps bring awareness to childhood cancer, and the very real emotional difficulties that many of the children experience.

When fighting cancer, one of the many problems that patients go through is having to fight off feeling isolated as well as a sense of hopelessness. Depression in cancer patients is a very real and very difficult side effect that can accompany a diagnosis. Carole Lieberman, MD, a psychiatrist, author, and member of the clinical faculty at the University of California’s Los Angeles Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior talks about the many conditions that can trigger depression, and the detrimental effects depression can have on the individual. “Many conditions may coexist with depression. Depression may increase the risk for another illness, and dealing with an illness may lead to depression. ‘Depression is anger turned inward toward the self,’ explains Lieberman. ‘This anger is self-destructive and therefore harmful to the body’” (Iliades). Of all the people diagnosed with depression, 25% of them are people who, at some point previously, were also diagnosed with cancer (Everyday Health). The Billy Bear Hug Foundation helps to lower this number. Defined, depression is, “A condition of general emotional dejection and withdrawal; sadness greater and more prolonged than that warranted by any objective reason” ( The Billy Bear Hug Foundation provides the crutch to help children, and realizes the need for emotional support many children require as they battle their disease, and help bring a smile to the faces of those who need it most.

Though the Billy Bear Hug Foundation works to bring happiness to children with cancer in a multitude of ways, bringing teddy bears to patients as a form of comfort is one of the best examples of work that they are known for. With donations coming from empathetic citizens, organizations, and companies, this foundation purchases teddy bears to bring to as many children as it can, hence the meaning behind its name. If the money were awarded to this foundation, it could be used to buy a large number of bears to donate to children who are dealing with the complications of cancer related illness. With every dollar donated, it is another step closer to changing the life of an individual who by just having the small comfort of a teddy bear, could feel more secure and less alone in a world full of chemotherapy treatment and constant emotional challenges.

I’m guessing that not many of you have heard of the Billy Bear Hug Foundation, which in itself is one of the reasons I chose it as my topic. I met Charlie growing up, and despite whether he knew it or not, he was a role model for my brothers and me. With the unexpected passing of his brother he started this organization, to honor him in a way that reflected all of the good his brother was hoping to accomplish in the field of medicine. I had the opportunity to talk to Charlie over email and through these words he gave me a glimpse of what his organization was truly all about, as well as what it means to him.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve expanded on our mission to encompass the idea of giving what we refer to as the “cure of comfort” to children with life limiting illnesses. The idea is that we’re sending the message to these children and their families that they’re not alone in this journey. It can be a lonely and often scary time, and just simple acts that allow people to know there are others out there who care about them and what they’re going through can make all the difference. (Wondergem)

Cancer is a terrible sickness that still to this day has no perfect cure. Whether it was a friend, family member, or an acquaintance, almost everyone has been touched in some way by this disease. Sadness and heartache are to be expected, and the Billy Bear Hug Foundation doesn’t try to mask this. The organization knows the road through treatment isn’t all that pretty, and often times there are storms that delay progress. But what the Billy Bear Hug Foundation does know, and tries to pass onto the children affected by cancer, is that sometimes life throws storms your way, and no matter what you will be affected by them. But instead of waiting for the storm to pass, they try and teach children the importance of learning how to dance in the rain. 

The Comforts of Home in the Hospital

Originally published on March 18, 2015 by Maranda of WOTV4.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOTV) Bedtime rituals are important, especially when children are out of their environment – like in a hospital. Being in the hospital can disrupt family life, but Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital has a solution that brings some normalcy and promotes reading and a good night’s sleep.

The Tuck-in Cart is a cart loaded with books, fleece blankets, and stuffed animals. Volunteers bring the cart to children’s rooms, tuck them in, and read them a story. Barnes and Noble donated books for all ages and interests. Billy Bear Hug Foundation donated the stuffed animals and individuals and groups donated the blankets.

For the full story, click here.