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Inside Track: Tragedy creates opportunity for Billy Bear Hug Foundation
Charlie Wondergem melds family, business and charitable giving in his definition of success.
Throughout West Michigan are hundreds of children battling chronic and terminal diseases who have been given stuffed bears as a source of comfort. They’ve received these toys, in part, because of the untimely death of Charlie Wondergem’s older brother, Billy.
Charlie Wondergem was a sophomore at the University of Denver when on Oct. 25, 2010, he received the phone call that Billy had died in his sleep at the age of 24, cause of death unknown.
Before his death, Billy worked as a research technician intern in the cancer genetics lab at Van Andel Institute. He was researching renal cell carcinoma and the team he was working with had discovered a gene that could change the way kidney cancer was diagnosed. He also volunteered at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in the post-anesthesia care unit.
“He had just been accepted into medical school a few weeks earlier,” said Wondergem.
“(Billy’s death) transpired near the end of my trimester and somehow I had to take exams.”
“I’m 19 and … I’m sitting there studying for exams and I’ve got a bear in my lap,” he recalled. “In that moment, there was no age requirement to own a bear.”
Soon after, Wondergem kicked the idea around with his family and Billy’s long-time friend Matt French to somehow bridge Billy's passion for medicine with his love for children. In 2010, Wondergem and French founded the Billy Bear Hug Foundation. Its $20,000 to $25,000 budget is funded through grants, an annual golf fundraiser at Thousand Oaks Golf, and benefits held at area high schools.
The foundation provides teddy bears to young patients at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital and Gilda’s Club of Grand Rapids, and helps grant wishes for children with life-limiting illnesses through Hospice of Michigan. In the organization’s first two years of existence, more than 800 children received a “Billy Bear.” That number recently increased to a yearly average of around 1,200.
The Billy Bear Hug Foundation is beginning to expand beyond its flagship distribution of bears to provide hats to children undergoing chemotherapy and other accessories for seriously ill children.
At this point, only tan-colored, Gund-brand bears are given to the children.
“It’s the Cadillac of teddy bears,” Wondergem said. “They're soft and huggable. We have all these wonderful organizations that push the envelope as far as development and discoveries (to cure diseases), but what we found lacking was that non-medical care. It’s the emotional comfort that gets lost, and we started to combine my brother’s two passions: helping children and his aspirations in pediatric oncology as a career.”
For the foundation’s efforts, Wondergem was recognized late last year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals West Michigan as the recipient of the Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy Award.
Wondergem remains clear-headed about what the Billy Bears can accomplish.
“Our sweet spot is providing comfort,” he said. “Looking at the kids getting their bears, seeing the smiles on their faces … it really does go a long way. But we’re not curing cancer here. We’re on a smaller budget but at the same time making a lasting impact.”
Persistence and an entrepreneurial spirit are the twin rudders that steer Wondergem’s career path, which includes being a partner for the Grand Haven-based REnuCELL Group LLC, which manufactures an array of skin treatment products in an FDA-compliant facility in Muskegonand then markets them to 1,500 retail stores nationwide and on its website.
“The founding partner, Jim Batts, is a close family friend,” said Wondergem. “Jim Batts owned the company Batts Inc. until he sold the company to Tyco in 2001. He’s done private equity ventures in West Michigan and came across this opportunity with an Australian company that we have a licensing agreement with.
“They did all the R&D, but they weren’t interested in being a consumer-focused marketing company. They were looking for a North American partner, and I became involved around six months later.”
Wondergem also is an investment banking analyst for Harris Williams & Co. in Richmond, Va.
In the summer of 2010, he was a sales and marketing intern for Amway Corp., where he developed sales promotions and marketing programs for the corporation’s independent business owners, which included new recruiting methods.
Wondergem graduated from the University of Denver with a Bachelor of Science in business administration in June 2013.
He describes himself as a sponge soaking up new challenges. He’s not altogether sure what the future holds for him, but feels he’s moving in the right direction because of his attitude toward life.
“It’s important to know we’re always learning,” said Wondergem. “I may have graduated from college since last spring, but the learning journey doesn’t end until you die. You always need to be listening to people until you die. I want to start and build a number of companies and use the talents I’ve been given to help solve some of the world’s greatest problems. I want to exercise my own creativity and kind of lead a group of others in building something that is greater than ourselves and contribute something meaningful to a cause and to a business, and to make a real impact.”
Wondergem considers his grandfather, Casey Wondergem, and his brother, Billy, the most influential people in his life.
“He told me before he passed away, ‘I thank God for giving me the opportunity to color outside the lines,’” Wondergem said of his grandfather. “We need to be really grateful for the opportunities we’ve been given. Never shut a door. Be open-minded and continue to think outside the box.”
In a similar vein, Billy demonstrated that people should not take a single day for granted.
“Our real belief and passion in what we were doing is what we had in common,” Wondergem said. “Every day he went to the Van Andel Institute, he really believed he had something to offer this world. His résumé was this never-ending passion for helping others. And so I try to weave in what I do, whether it’s my nonprofit involvement or my business involvement, to give back.”
As a young entrepreneur, Wondergem knows the inherent financial risks that come with operating a handful of businesses. But for him, success comes in other ways besides the bottom line.
“You can’t start with material stuff if you want success,” said Wondergem. “You need to be driven by an inner passion, and when you look at any successful entrepreneur or professional, in general, they have something beyond themselves and beyond any selfish desire.”
Wondergem said his three-pronged definition of success keeps balance in his life.
“First and foremost, success in family,” he said. “If there’s anything I learned these last few years, it is there’s no substitute for family. Second, success in business. I have to produce and have success in a career. To speak more broadly, I want to do well in my career and to give back. And third, success in giving. I think we’re only worth what we give. We need to use everything we’ve been blessed with to help those who are not as fortunate.”