Buccaneer T Jerry Wunsch leads 'Jerry's Journey' every winter
It's February, a month in which you might expect a Wisconsin resident to schedule a trip to Florida. The reverse excursion, Florida to Wisconsin, may be a little less popular in the dead of winter; however, Buccaneer T Jerry Wunsch recently found a very good excuse to make that trip.
In fact, Wunsch has made that trip for three straight years, and not alone. A fourth-year offensive lineman for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Wunsch recently returned from his third annual "Jerry's Journey," a trip on which he accompanied pediatric cancer and sickle cell anemia patients on a five-day winter excursion to his hometown of Wausau, Wisconsin. This year, Jerry brought together young cancer and sickle cell patients from the Tampa Bay area, Orlando, Atlanta and Wausau for a carefree ski weekend.
Wunsch has been working with pediatric cancer patients since the Buccaneers drafted him in 1997. He lost a family member to cancer that year, and after helping the rest of his family cope with the pain, he felt a strong need to help others who were going through the same experience. Jerry's desire to work with cancer patients led him to form the "Circle of Friends" program, an initiative designed to generate funds that are donated to programs for pediatric cancer patients.
To kick off the journey, which took place from February 16 – 20, children from all four cities met at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin for a tour of the stadium and the Packer Hall of Fame. Upon arrival at Lambeau, several members of the Packers' staff treated the group to a tour of the field, locker room and training facility. The kids, many of which had never seen snow, enjoyed running through the five inches of snow that covered Lambeau Field. Several threw snowballs as if they were footballs and many even tried the "Lambeau Leap."
After playing on the field, the group moved inside to the locker room where the Packers' equipment staff had made a locker name plate for each Jerry's Journey participant. The children were elated to see a locker custom-designed for them. The Packers also donated gift bags with hats and T-shirts to each child.
After a few hours in Green Bay, the group traveled to Wausau, where they spent the next four days engaging in such cold weather activities as cross-country and downhill skiing, dog sled and snowmobile rides, tobogganing, campfires and hot-dog roasts. Most of the kids' preferred activity was downhill skiing at Rib Mountain, while another favorite was the dog sled rides.
One day the group traveled to Wausau School Forest, where one of the activities involved painting ceramic heart ornaments. The ornaments are used every year to decorate a tree that Jerry displays in honor of all children who have participated in Jerry's Journey. The tree dons also ornaments from those children who have passed away and holds ornaments in remembrance of family members who have died from cancer.
The last night of the trip was quite memorable. Jerry planned a nice dinner and dance at the Pinewood Supper Club where the children enjoyed several hours of dancing with their newly found friends. After the dance, the group headed back to the hotel for an awards ceremony. Each child received an award and had their photo taken with Jerry and his wife, Melissa. They then had the chance to hang the ornament they made at Wausau School Forest on the tree, signifying their presence on this year's and future trips. There was not a dry eye in the room as the kids and chaperones thanked one another for making the trip a special one.
What makes Jerry's program so unique is the personal attention and selflessness he demonstrates toward the children. Last year's trip began the day after he got married. Instead of jetting off to a tropical paradise for his honeymoon, Jerry and Melissa spent their first days as a married couple in the snow with a group of children. This year Jerry and Melissa spent their first wedding anniversary with the kids.
"Every year, I hope the children involved in Jerry's Journey will find comfort in realizing kids all over the world go through the same experiences when dealing with cancer," Jerry said. "The kids make new friends, enjoy several different experiences and, most importantly, learn they are not alone in this world."