When John Ramming imagined a therapy tool for children, he never thought he’d be presenting the idea to 19 specialists at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.
The 35-year Glyndon resident had been fundraising with the Carroll County Knights of Columbus for a Hopkins chaplain who was supporting hospitalized children from the Carroll community where Ramming had previously lived.
“He would buy little figurines and other items to bridge that communications gap with children in crisis so he could establish that relationship to work with them,” Ramming says of Rev. Salvatore Livigni.
Ramming got an idea for a permanent item that would be on hand in hospitals for children in need. Livigni called him for a meeting at Hopkins.
“I went down to meet with him thinking that I would go down to his very small office,” Ramming says. Instead, this meeting took place in a major board room with specialists from across the children’s hospital.
This 2004 meeting was the first of many at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center Child Life Department to develop Duffy the Courage Lion, which serves as a communication tool between children and medical specialists in the wake of trauma.
From its official launch at the center two years later to now, the plush character exemplifying strength from inner courage has helped more than 90,000 children.
The lion’s footprint extends from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Savannah, Georgia, and from Baltimore to Orange County, California, Ramming says.
Looking back at the program’s beginnings, Baltimore’s Child chronicles how a small idea grew to have such a huge impact.
Patrice Brylske, now director of Child Life services at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, recalls her time on the development team. As a Child Life specialist, her role was to identify coping strategies for children using age-appropriate language.
The result was two versions of Duffy for older and younger children—a 14-inch and a 10-inch toy—each with long arms that children could use to point out areas of the body where they were in pain. An accompanying storybook told a story of courage after an injury.
New Windsor children’s book author Lois Szymanski and Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania, illustrator Judy Grupp volunteered to create a book called “Courage Pockets: A Gift from the Heart Helping Children Experiencing Illness and Trauma,” which used a pocket river stone as a symbol of courage.
“That (symbol) obviously makes sense for adults, but we worked really hard to have that make sense for kids,” Brylske says.
“Our dream was to be able to help a couple hundred children at Johns Hopkins Hospital,” Ramming says. Now the program has reached 182 hospitals, hospices, military organizations, and therapeutic camps.
In addition, several supplements to Duffy and the original story exist.
Vince Bagli—former Baltimore Colts coach and sportscaster—narrates an audio CD with musical performances called “A Gift from the Heart” that helps children learn to read along with the text.
Ramming says research showed 50% of children had difficulty with words only, either because of age, physical impairment, or developmental disability.
A book called “Courage Stones” and its accompanying DVD “Stars for Heroes”—sponsored by Ronald McDonald House Charities in Baltimore—serve as “a facilitator for children that were experiencing grief, loss and separation anxiety,” Ramming adds.
During the last five years, the volunteer-run Courage Lion program has been hit by heightened travel, production, and shipping costs—as well as COVID-19.
Although Ramming’s team of 10 volunteers has not been able to do many deliveries, the lions are still available to any hospital that needs them upon request and for individual purchase at Santoni’s Marketplace & Catering in Glyndon.
Lou Santoni met Ramming at a church retreat. Ramming’s passion got him involved from Courage Lion’s beginnings. Santoni recalls that Ramming could tell him exactly where he was when he felt his calling to create Duffy.
“He ignited something in my brother, myself, and my team,” Santoni says. “The little we could have done to give him support … we were privileged and happy to be involved.”
One hospital visit with Ramming, in which the lion was given to a child about 3 years old going through chemo, sticks out to Santoni.
“Hearing the mother tell John how much that meant … it moved me,” he says.
Many community partners have contributed over the years. The operation has been completely funded by small businesses and individual donations. Notable is Von Paris Moving & Storage. The Savage, Maryland, location stores all the Courage Lion merchandise free of charge.
Brylske is grateful to still have access to the lions and hopes the program will continue. It’s one of many collaborations the children’s center has developed with community partners.
“It’s impressive when there are people in our community that care so much about children and children’s emotional needs,” she says.
Ramming now lives in Lewes, Delaware, but he makes regular trips to the area to visit his daughters in Hagerstown and Baltimore—and to make deliveries. To support the Courage Lion program, send donations to Courage Unlimited Corp., P.O. Box 3606, Glyndon, MD 21071.