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.