In May of 1997, beloved grandparents Madeline and Frank Rourke were driving back home to Birmingham after a vacation in Tennessee when they were involved in a terrible rollover car crash.
Both had to be airlifted to Miami Valley Hospitalin Dayton, Ohio. They were in the intensive care unit when first responders reached the Rourkes' son, Paul, in Bloomfield Hills by phone.
Paul and his sister quickly arranged to drive together to their parents' aid. On his way out the door, he grabbed a stuffed animal from his children's toy basket — his kids then were 9, 7, and 2 1/2 — to take with him. As he told his wife recently: "I wanted to bring a part of the grandkids to them."
Paul Rourke could not have known it then, but grabbing that nondescript, gray, stuffed animal was the start of a profound journey of hope and healing that has spanned decades and covered thousands of miles.
Frank Rourke recovered from his head injury and was released after a short while. But Madeline, who suffered numerous broken bones from her neck to her feet, required several surgeries. While family members took turns driving to Ohio to be with Madeline, the stuffed animal called "Will" provided constant vigil.
"Will was a sign to her that she wasn't alone and that we were thinking of her and praying for her," said Cathie Rourke, Paul's wife and Madeline's daughter-in-law.
Madeline's hospital stay stretched on for months. Over time, Cathie Rourke said: "it was like Will took on Madeline's persona."
Known for her "positive, wonderful and inspirational spirit," Madeline shooed away pity, saying "it's just broken bones and broken bones can heal."
When doctors told her they needed to replace her shoulder with titanium, Madeline quipped: "Well then, just connect the golf club to my arm and I'll be good to go."
Said Cathie: "We were all thinking there's no way she'll ever play golf again. Well, she not only golfed again, she's traveled the world, gone zip lining and white water rafting. She's just an amazing person."
By October, Madeline was well enough to return home. Will came back to Paul and Cathie's house, but he was not idle for long. As soon as someone in the extended family had a medical challenge, Will was sent to them in a manila envelope.
Over the course of the next 18 years, Will was passed from friend to family member in need and back again, relinquished to his next assignment when it was deemed "that person needed him more."
Or, as in the case of Cathie's mother, when the person felt they were ready. Bev Iott had Will with her several times in Traverse City as she battled breast and brain cancer.
"One day she said to me she thought she was ready to send him back," Cathie said. "She wasn't done with her chemo yet, but she felt strong enough. There was great power in that simple decision."
In kind, Will was there for Cathie's nephew, Nathan Iott, in January 2008, when Nathan, then 4 years old, had to have skull reconstruction surgery. That same year, Will was there for Cathie's son, Chris Rourke, at age 18, when he suffered a stroke and spent a week in the hospital.
"I never thought I'd be taking a stuffed animal to an 18-year-old in the hospital, but my kids are enamored with him because they've seen what he's done over the years," Cathie said.
He was there when Cathie's daughter, Monica, had to have throat surgery in 2012, when Cathie's oldest daughter, Rachel, was hit by a car while riding her bike in 2013, and again, after Rachel had her wisdom teeth pulled last year.
Years ago, when Cathie's father was undergoing a heart procedure, Will broke through the tension.
"My father was one of those gruff on the outside, soft on the inside types," Cathie said. "He was playing with Will and had us all cracking up. It eased the stress and made a connection with us in the way my Dad could not."
By 2007, Cathie began exploring sharing Will outside the family's inner circle. It took many prototypes, but in March, Will the little lamb was officially launched at the Birmingham Community House. He comes with a journal and a website, willfoundaway.com, designed to map Will's journey and record stories of healing.
Since the launch, Will has been to Prague and France. A preschool teacher in Virginia gave one to one of her students who was having a kidney transplant. One was sent to Texas to mend a broken heart. Last week, Terri Pickering Saenz of Novi posted on Facebook a photo of her and Will on the plane ride to the Mayo Clinic for her much anticipated participation in a clinical trial for ALS. She credited a little lamb.
"Will found a way," she posted.
Madeline, now in her mid-80s, continues to be active. She is so pleased Will is now available to the public, she keeps several Wills on hand in the trunk of her car for when she meets someone in need of a dose of hope.