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.