Billy Bear Hug Foundation continues to give comfort

At the young age of 24, Billy Wondergem, a cancer researcher had discovered a rare gene that could potentially change the diagnosis and treatments of kidney cancer throughout the world.

He was accepted into medical school and looking forward to becoming a pediatric oncologist when he unexpectedly passed away in his sleep.

After Billy’s death, his younger brother Charlie Wondergem along with the rest of his family were devastated, but devoted to memorializing him through acts of service and making an impact, the way Billy would have wanted.

Billy’s kindness continues to be felt in Grand Rapids with the Billy Bear Foundation, where several East students have been on the board since its inception in 2011.

“He had such a passion and such a fire, and that was all suddenly ripped away from us. It took us a while to identify what it was we wanted to do to memorialize him, we wanted it to be something long-lasting…that would impact those who didn’t even know him,” Charlie said.

When Charlie had returned to school to take his exams he heard a knock on his door. A few of his friends had bought Charlie a teddy bear in hopes of comforting him during such a hard time.

“That simple act meant the world to me in that moment, and I saw that, while we have so many incredible medical advancements, there was an opportunity through a few simple gestures, to help children and families going through such traumatic experiences in a similar fashion,” Charlie said.

In 2011, Charlie began a non profit project called Billy Bear Hug to keep the memory of his older brother alive.

The Billy Bear Hug Foundation has a goal of gifting hospitalized children with a teddy bear and a care package in order to make them feel heard and seen. They distribute teddy bears to families and children in hospitals across West Michigan.

Charlie wanted to add a unique feature to the foundation, though, throughout his life he has found hands-on, nontraditional learning more impactful. That being said, Charlie created the youth advisory board, which is a leadership development program for high school students. This allows them to be at the forefront of running the foundation which provides a special experience for the kids. This experience is unlike any you can get in a classroom setting.

“We’ve reached a point where these students are truly running our organization, and it’s incredible to see their creativity and passion come to life,” Charlie said.

To be appointed on the board, one must go through an interview process, and be selected by foundation organizers. The youth board of the foundation consists of many East Grand Rapids students, past and present. One of the students is KK Milanowski ‘23, who earned the title of co-president of the youth advisory board.

The board also allows for high school students to earn business experience.

“I love that I have been able to learn more about the business side of nonprofits,” Milanowski said.

Lilly Wert ‘23 is also on the youth board, and is the co-chair of the fundraising committee. Her job is to help fundraise for events and work with other committees like marketing, event planning and programming. A specific fundraising event that Billy Bear hosts is their annual Teddy Bear Toss. In 2021, the Teddy Bear Toss took place at an EGR hockey game against Grand Rapids Catholic Central. Most who attended the game purchase a teddy bear as they walk in to toss onto the rink after the first goal. This event connects Billy’s love for hockey and philanthropy to earn profits for the foundation and contributes to the distribution of bears to children.

Wert not only plans the events but she also attends them with other board members. She feels the impact of the foundation directly through the children she meets at the hospitals.

“Last year, KK and I went to the children’s healing center and we gave some of the kids billy bear hugs and being able to see the immediate joy from the bear was really rewarding and the impact we made,” Wert said.

Wert and Milanowski both agree that being able to see the impacts of the foundation directly through the children has been enriching.

“Seeing the joy you give kids when they receive a bear is such a great feeling,” Milanowski said.

Moving forward, Charlie doesn’t think that the foundation needs to go outside of Michigan and that it is more impactful and effective to keep their grassroots nature. The local aspect of the foundation is appealing to donors and makes their sponsorships more special.

The foundation strives to continue to fight against childhood illness by making sure children in hospitals across West Michigan don’t have to feel alone.

“While we’re not developing a cure per se, we’re bringing the cure of comfort to children and families in need and impacted by critical illnesses,” Charlie said.

Even 12 years after Billy Wondergem’s death, his community and peers still honor his legacy through the foundation, East Grand Rapids students contribute to this through their involvement on the Youth Advisory Board and participation in the foundation’s events.