Stuffed with Strength

MBA graduate's Courage Lion Program brings comfort and courage to thousands of hospitalized children

By Maria Blackburn  |  Photos by David Rehor

David Robinson lies in a hospital bed in Charlottesville, Va., 250 miles away from most of the things he loves—his home, his brother and sister, his friends.

David is 7. And ever since he was diagnosed with Stage 4 kidney cancer in November, the active first grader has spent much of his time in a hospital room, often too weak and sick to run and jump and play. So his parents have brought in his favorite Disney movies, loaded the iPad with games, and decorated the windowsill by his bed with a few favorite books and toys.

And if you should stop by David’s room one day, and David is feeling up to it, he’ll reach over to the windowsill, pick up a stuffed lion named Duffy, and hold it up to show you. David, who has Down Syndrome, might not be able to fully articulate what he wants to say, but his pride in this floppy golden lion beams through his smile.

“David, are you brave like Duffy?” his mother asks.

“Yes!” David shouts.

Duffy the Courage Lion is more than just a cuddly plaything. Developed by a team of child life specialists and clinicians at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, his purpose is to help give children in crisis the strength and support they need to go on. “It’s not just about the lion,” says John Ramming, MBA ’85, founder of the Courage Lion Program. “It’s what the lion elicits in you, what it helps you discover about yourself.”

The Glyndon, Md., grandfather might seem an unlikely creator of a nonprofit dedicated to distributing free Duffys and accompanying picture books and CDs to children in need. Ramming, 67, served more than two decades as a military intelligence officer, founded a successful company that designed covert surveillance systems, earned two graduate degrees, and taught college courses to law enforcement and management professionals. “I lived in a world of black and white,” he says.

But after retiring and becoming active in his local Knights of Columbus council, he met Rev. Salvatore Livigni, then the Catholic chaplain at Johns Hopkins Hospital, who distributed small religious statues to hospitalized children and their families as part of his ministry. “There has to be something more we could do to help,” Ramming remembers thinking.

He had no medical experience, no experience working with critically ill children and their families. But Ramming had recently come to know two families who had faced the loss of a child. “I saw in them the most forsaken loss that a parent could ever experience,” he says. “I wanted to make a difference.”

He used his business expertise to start Courage Unlimited Corporation DBA Courage Lion. And in June 2006, after 18 months of research and development with Hopkins specialists, Ramming launched the all-volunteer Courage Lion Program, which is designed to minimize the negative impact hospitalization and illness can have on children.

Ramming hoped to reach 250 children a year at Hopkins. But word about Duffy quickly spread, and soon hospitals, military organizations, hospices, and even Alzheimer’s care facilities across the country were requesting Courage Lions. To date the program has helped more than 36,000 children in crisis at 114 hospitals and other facilities throughout the United States and Canada.

Shannon Joslin, child life manager at the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital, found Duffy was a valuable tool she could use to help children. “A lot of younger children may not have the verbal ability or the comfort level to tell you how they are feeling about a situation,” says Joslin. “But they can use Duffy and play and that gives us a mirror to their experiences in the hospital.”

Young patients can insert IVs into Duffy to help them prepare for and gain some control over enduring such procedures themselves. The lion’s arms are also long enough to cover his eyes when he’s “scared” and act as a mirror of a child’s emotions, Joslin explains.

Duffy’s “courage pocket” on his belly gives children a place to put notes or pictures about how they feel and remind them that they have the courage needed to get through trying times.
Courage Pockets, Duffy’s storybook about how he faces a serious injury and finds the courage he needs within himself to heal, speaks not only to children newly diagnosed with cancer and other illnesses but also to children whose loved ones are dying or in intensive care. “That’s the best thing about the Courage Lion,” Joslin says. “It’s not just limited to children who are hospitalized. It’s there for anyone who needs it.”

Nancy Ellen Artis, Ph.D., education director of the hospital education program at the University of Virginia Children’s Hospital, agrees. “At this point it’s impossible to imagine life at our children’s hospital without Duffy,” she says.

Phil Lazzati, ’84, president of the Loyola University Maryland Alumni Association, said he was struck by the compassion and commitment behind the Courage Lion Program. This year, the association awarded the program its Alumni Service Award, a grant given to a deserving Loyola graduate for a charitable effort in the support of others. “It’s amazing what a difference a person can make with such a simple, unique idea,” says Lazzati, who as the parent of a child who fought a serious illness at an early age knows firsthand the critical need the Courage Lion Program addresses.

Although he’s delighted with the program’s success, Ramming knows that there are many more children throughout North America who could benefit from the Courage Lion Program and he’s dedicated to sharing Duffy with them, too.

“When you see the expression on a child’s face when they receive the lion and the light bulb lights from understanding the story and finding their own courage, it stays with you and motivates you to continue.”

It costs $25 to sponsor a child with a Duffy lion, book, and CD. To support the Courage Lion Program, visit or write to

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1 Comment

  • Posted by Lois Behles | June 27, 2013

    Dear Mr. Ramming, It was just about one year ago that you left by our door, “Duffy” for Nathanael. I will never forget opening the door to find your thoughtful gift of “Duffy”, a book and a CD for our son who had at the time 80 + surgeries. Most recently, I have been following a story about a family in Maryland who adopted a beautiful little girl from China who was in need of a heart. She is struggling for her life at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I want send this dear child a “Duffy”, CD and book as she is one courageous child. Please let me know how I should proceed in forwarding this precious gift to her. I will be out of town until late Tuesday, July 2nd to celebrate Nathanael’s 14th birthday. Thank you for helping all those who continue to endure daily challenges. Sincerely, Lois Behles

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