When John Ramming convened with a panel of 19 medical specialists at Johns Hopkins Children Center in 2005, his initial expectations were to originate something that helped ailing children and their families cope with the painful and challenging experience of disease, injury or abuse.
He had recently watched a couple of friends in his community endure the torment of losing their young ones. He said that spurred him to lead the group that would create Duffy the Courage Lion, a stuffed animal that offers far more than just a comforting hug and a friend to hold—although he's proven to be good for that, too.
After extensive research in the child care field, the team came up with the idea of a loveable, relatable character and paired it with a compelling storyline that aims to inspire children to harness their inner courage and triumph in tough times. About 18 months later, in June of 2006, Duffy’s heart-melting story was told for the first time at Johns Hopkins.
And, now, some six years after that, more than 32,000 children in 107 different medical care facilities across the country, and in Canada, have read the tale and benefited from the message, camaraderie and strength that Duffy provides.
Ramming, himself, says he couldn’t have seen this coming but he couldn't be more thrilled.
Duffy and the River Stone Story
Ramming and the experts at Hopkins’ Child Life Department teamed with author Lois Szymanski and illustrator Judy Grupp to compose a book that kids dealing with a diverse medical issues could relate to.
Courage Pockets, the 30-page, uplifting saga of Duffy, who injures himself by falling off a tree branch while performing his favorite activity (watching zebras run), helps kids realize that the courage to overcome difficulty is inside them all along.
Visibly in a “slump,” as Ramming calls it, Duffy damages his leg and head in a fall and is nursed back to health by his various animal friends who do all they can to mend the lion’s physical wounds. However, to conquer the mental and emotional battle, Duffy is reminded by his mother that he obtained a river stone—tucked away beneath a pocket in his tummy, which can literally be found in each stuffed lion—for being the most courageous of his brothers when swimming through a river earlier in life.
“We use that as one of the virtue points to talk to the children about something they are proud of,” Ramming said. “It could be baking cookies with grandma, doing well in ballet, hitting the home run—whatever the case may be.
"We take that activity and use it to see the fortitude that exists in that activity, thus proving to the child that they do have the inner characteristics and inner strength to wrestle with their challenge that they have.”
In addition to the spiral-bound book, the Courage Lion Program also introduced an audio CD, narrated by legendary Baltimore sportscaster Vince Bagli, in an effort to reach even more children, particularly ones with developmental disabilities. The book can be heard in English or Spanish and a DVD is in the works.
“The characters are very easy for the kids to identify with and it is written in a way that’s kind of open ended,” said Patrice Brylske, director of Hopkins’ Child Life Department.
“Regardless of what the child might be facing for their disease or diagnosis, they could see themselves in the story. It’s not just for kids who are in a car accident or kids who were victim of a burn injury or kids that have serious diagnoses. You can really, as a caregiver, adapt it. Its power is in that it’s so flexible.”
The stuffed animal is constructed in a way that allows kids to take Duffy’s arms and use them to point where on the body they are in pain.
Duffy can also undergo medical procedures, such as having a cast put on his arm, to help reduce children's fears.
Ramming also said that it’s common to see Duffy wrapped around the side of a crib or dangling from the pole attached to an IV.
Not Bad for an All-Volunteer Group
With Duffy making an impact in over 100 different hospitals across the country, Ramming estimates that the Courage Lion Program has penetrated approximately one-seventh of the various medical care facilities nationwide.
“We’ve been absolutely flabbergasted at the way the medical professionals have found uses for this,” Ramming said. “Our initial thoughts were, if we could help 250 kids at Hopkins, life would be just great. We would feel successful. Never did we dream that it would grow at this rate.”
No Courage Lion Program workers receive compensation for the program.
“If you see a child smile and you see the relief that comes when they find something that can console them, that’s all the compensation that any of our volunteers need,” Ramming said.
Community businesses and organizations have rallied around the cause.
Ramming, a Glyndon native, said he was stunned by the efforts of Santoni’s, which presented the program with $25,000 in donation money just last week.
However, Ramming’s fundraising success comes as no surprise to Brylske.
“He’s just a delightful man, very charismatic, and I think he’s certainly a person who can pool groups of people and funding forces together," Brylske said.
“I guess you can’t imagine how big something could get when you participate in it. But, I’m not surprised at all because of the person John is. He clearly understands how to work with people that are experts in their field … I’m kind of not surprised so many want to use [Duffy and the program] and are receptive to it.”
The Grass Is Much Greener on the Other Side
After spending the majority of his professional career as a military intelligence officer and as a CEO of a company that trained law enforcement, with a short stint as a college professor, the 66-year-old Ramming says he never could have envisioned the niche he currently occupies.
“To me, it’s been such a cultural shock going from the training law enforcement side where life is black or white all the way over to kind of the warm and fuzzy side of life,” Ramming said.
Functioning as the organization’s president has allowed Ramming to encounter individuals in all walks of life.
“This program has allowed me to get to know people for really who they are,” Ramming said. “You see folks as an executive of a company or an owner of a store or someone working in the community, but there are some tremendous hearts that really we’re glad have been touched by this program. We’ve designed it so everyone can participate.”
Ramming has trouble recalling a single most gratifying moment with Duffy.
Instead, he pulls out a binder filled with pictures of kids of all ages holding Duffy. He points out the expressions of calm and comfort on their faces.
Flipping through the pages, Ramming stopped to identify one boy in particular.
“Seeing the look on that child’s face—he had four different cancers, two days before his 14th birthday,” Ramming said.
Clutching Duffy in his arms, the boy had the look of a kid holding a newly opened present on Christmas Day.
To find out more about the Courage Lion Program, you can visit its website at http://www.couragelion.org/ or call 410-584-7273.