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De Pere mom starts teddy bear drive to bring comfort to the community and honor son's life

Posted at 9:20 PM, Apr 07, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-07 23:19:42-04

ASHWAUBENON (NBC 26) — Shanda Verhagen's son, Gracen, was born seven weeks early, weighing two pounds and two ounces. He was born with multiple health problems, including Cerebral Palsy, a brain injury, and a compromised immune system.

He passed away in January 2019, just a few months before his fifth birthday.

He spent his life in and out of hospitals, and during that time, there was one thing that brought him comfort.

"Each and every time he would get a stuffed animal, a little blanket, it would always put a bright smile on his face in a really hard time," Shanda said. "That one little act of kindness truly, really made a difference."

Now, Shanda said she wants to share that comfort with other families, so she started a teddy bear drive, Gracen's Care Bears.

Gracen's Care Bears began in April 2019, and she said it's been going strong ever since.

"Last year, we had 163 teddy bears. Every year it grows," Shanda said. "This year, we have a goal of 500."

The drive runs from April 1 through April 30, in honor of Gracen's birth month.

His family puts donation bins in local businesses throughout the Green Bay area. Pizza Ranch is one business they choose to work with every year.

"Pizza Ranch has always had a special place in our hearts," Shanda said. "The Pizza Ranch birthday song is something that we'd actually sing to him almost every single day, so I think he thought every day was his birthday."

Shanda said they collect stuffed animals that are new with tags only because the animals are then dropped off at local hospitals, and she said there's a big need for them.

"We had I think over 100 stuffed animals go to one location, and they said that they actually go through those within like a month time frame at one hospital," Shanda said.

Gracen's dad, Mike Verhagen, said he spent the majority of the time in the hospital with Gracen, once staying two full weeks in Milwaukee.

"When you're up in the hospital like that, you feel like you're isolated. You feel like you're isolated from the world," Mike said. "It was just me and Gracen, sitting in this room. This little teddy bear meant so much because not only would it bring a smile to his face, it would bring a smile to my face."

"Just being able to kind of give back and put that smile on another kid's face and really to let another family know that we care is my way of honoring him," Shanda said.

Donation bins can be found at the following locations:

Pizza Ranch - 2206 Main St Green Bay or 820 Willard Drive
Black & White Nails - 426 S Military Ave
The Dough Shoppe - 1166 Ashwaubenon St
Dirt Juicery - 2304 Lineville Rd or 303 Bay Park Square
Advance America - 506 Military Ave

Donations can also be made through Shanda's Amazon Wishlist.