The tiny toy and his touching story carry the message that "we are never alone," Cathie Rourke tells PEOPLE

By Andrea Billups
May 21, 2015 01:05 PM
Paul Rourke

Cathie Rourke and her family of Bloomfield Township, Michigan, have shared a message of encouragement through the rotating gift of a small children’s toy – a story of inspiration 18 years in the making.

In 1997, Cathie’s mother-in-law, Madeline Rourke, was severely injured in a rollover accident in Dayton, Ohio, along with her husband, Frank. Cathie and her husband, Paul, left their home near Detroit to be by their side. Paul scooped up a small children’s toy on his frantic way out of the door as a way to bring his children to the ailing grandparents.

Madeline and Frank recovered, but since then, the toy that stayed close by Madeline’s side during her five-month stay in the hospital – a friend in her darkest hour – has crisscrossed the country. It has traveled to homes and medical centers, comforted people during cancer treatments – and even romantic break-ups. The tiny toy has been shared back and forth (even by mail) by at least 25 family members and their friends as a way to inspire healing.

Now, Cathie has brought the toy lamb – named Will – to life in the picture book (with a foreword by presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson), journal and website named “Will Found a Way.”

“His use is so universal,” Cathie tells PEOPLE of the small white lamb, whose gentle image and symbolic name is meant to soothe. “Anytime you are facing a new challenge, a new job, losing a home, a spouse or just going through a tough moment, he helps you remember that you are not really alone.”

Madeline, who is now in her 80s, has faced brain and breast cancer treatments with Will by her side. The stuffed lamb recently traveled to the Mayo Clinic with a new pal who is undergoing experimental treatment for Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was also sent to a heartbroken friend – along with homemade gingersnap cookies.

“When something is wrong, we often don’t know what to do, but Will is proof that sometimes just being there or making the smallest gesture is enough to make a difference,” she says. “When people are struggling, we may not know what to say, but he’s proof that you don’t have to say anything – you just have to be there.”

Will is available online and also in the gift shop of Dayton’s Miami Valley Hospital, where he shared a room with Madeline after her accident all those years ago.

Cathie holds on to thank-you notes from people around the country who have received their own gift of Will – and have found a will to persevere.

“They say, ‘Gestures like this make me know I can go on when I didn’t think I could,’ ” she shares.