As a pediatric oncology nurse, Jean Gribbon witnessed suffering every day. But she also witnessed hope, strength and determination among her tiny patients. As a way to honor that and help children mark the milestones in their treatment, Gribbon created Beads of Courage in 2003.
“I think any nurse will tell you that you always have a compelling need to give your patients something, not as a reward but as a way to acknowledge the courage you bear witness to,” the mom of three says. Children undergoing treatment are given colorful beads by their doctors and nurses to both commemorate and communicate their journey, and it’s not unusual for a kid to collect 500 in one year. The result, Gribbon says, helps them develop coping strategies and find meaning in their illness.
Beads of Courage started as a one-off program at Phoenix Children’s Hospital that Gribbon developed while she was a PhD candidate. Fourteen years later, the nonprofit has instituted Beads of Courage in 260 hospitals in eight countries. “The experience of these children and their families doesn’t change,” Gribbon says of the program’s international appeal. “Every single bead that you take the time to give a child is a dose of narrative medicine that’s helping them tell their story.”
“Yes, the beads are intended for the child, but it’s very much a family-focused intervention. For example, we have a yellow bead that is given for every overnight hospital stay. Most of the time, it’s Mom who’s there on the cot [next to her child], struggling to get a good night’s sleep—that mom earned that yellow bead too. We also have a Siblings Program that gives beads to brothers and sisters, and it helps them bond with their sick sibling; it’s something they can share together.”
“Before Beads of Courage, children would have the physical manifestations that they went through something: scars, tubes, pictures of their medical journey. But now they have these colorful beads, and each one visually translates a treatment, a procedure or a milestone that they’ve overcome. It’s really a new visual language that connects all of us."
“People who sign up for our Carry a Bead program get a matching bead set. One bead they keep, and the other one they carry. They return the bead they carry with a signed love note, which we distribute randomly. One mom posted a picture on Facebook of the bead I had carried along with my note. Within minutes, a mutual connection said, ‘Oh, I know her!’ I live in Arizona, and that bead ended up in Pennsylvania. It was an amazing experience of human connectedness. When you carry a bead, you really become part of that family’s story.”