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Multiple Teams · Football and teddy bears: East Grand Rapids’ Hearts of Gold Game a community effort


By Steve Kaminski |
on October 10, 2014 7:10 a.m.

GRAND RAPIDS – Josh Lowe walked into his 3-year old nephew’s room at the DeVos Children’s Hospital last July, and after a long, difficult week, he finally had a reason to smile.

Someone had dropped off a teddy bear on his nephew’s bed, and that made little Elijah Jackson’s day.

“It had only been a couple of days after he had been diagnosed, and at first, we didn’t know who the teddy bear was from,” Lowe said. “But once we saw the note from Billy Bear Hug, it was pretty overwhelming. It was comforting in a very tragic time.”

Jackson was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a form of cancer that develops from nerve tissue, usually in children, on July 15. The good news is that his mother, Danielle Packer, reported that her son is doing better, and chemotherapy has shrunk the tumor in his abdomen to the point where it can be removed later this month.

She said the support of family and friends, including Billy Bear Hug, helped her family get through the past three months.

Lowe said he heard of Billy Bear Hug even before his nephew became ill.

His friend back at Catholic Central High School, 2004 graduate Billy Wondergem, died in 2010, and that sent Wondergem’s brother, Charlie Wondergem, on a mission. Charlie Wondergem helped create the Billy Bear Hug foundation, which gives teddy bears to children with life-threatening and chronic illnesses.

“I knew that Billy’s brother started that foundation. I just didn’t think that it would actually affect us,” Lowe said. “It definitely was comforting.”

East Grand Rapids is hosting Caledonia today at 7 p.m. in an OK White Conference showdown that has been voted the MLive Grand Rapids Press Game of the Week. EGR athletic director Tim Johnston pointed out that this is more than a game since it is the Pioneers’ sixth annual Hearts of Gold Game.

The Pioneers students and staff throughout the school district pull the EGR community together for the event each year in an effort to raise funds for a non-profit organization, with Billy Bear Hug being this year’s recipient.

Charlie Wondergem and his brother’s close friend, Matt French, started Billy Bear Hug in 2011. The foundation distributes about 2,000 teddy bears to children each year via the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and Hospice of Michigan.

Billy Wondergem was a Calvin College graduate who had been accepted into medical school before he died unexpectedly in his sleep. His goal was to become a pediatric oncologist.

“When we lost him, which was very unexpected, he was doing a lot of research in kidney cancer at Van Andel Institute, and he was one of the few, if any, guys there without a PHD to publish his work,” Wondergem said. “It was published a few years after his death in the Journal of Cancer Research. He had identified a gene for kidney cancer.

“We wanted do something that was living and breathing so we could expand his mission, rather than say a scholarship or something like that. We wanted it to be dynamic, something that people who didn’t know him firsthand would somehow come into touch with him and who he was and the life that he led. When we lost him, we felt his impact had been cut off, not just to us, but the whole community when you think about what he would have done as a doctor. We saw this as a void that we could fill.”

EGR’s Hearts of Gold has raised approximately $250,000 for charities in the past, including the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. It is a combined effort of the district’s elementary, middle and high schools.

“We began it 2009 because the football team wanted to make a difference after an East Grand Rapids student passed away from childhood cancer,” said Hearts of Gold board member Natalie Bernecker. “It affected people and they wanted to make a difference.

“Everyone can make a difference. If you have a piggy bank and have loose change in it, you can make a difference. The elementary kids did lemonade stands during the summer. The middle school is doing a kick ball tournament at 3 p.m. (today). It is getting packed with teams. The high school is doing a lunch hour basketball tournament. Every group does something different. The EGR cross country team runs the ball in every year. They will run from Caledonia to EGR to present it right before the football game.”

A ceremony is scheduled prior to tonight’s 7 p.m. kickoff.

“It puts everything in perspective,” said EGR senior center Ryan Johnston. “It is so rewarding to see what the community can do when it comes together to support a cause that’s so much bigger than a football game.”