A Beautiful Girl & Her Courageous Gift for All Kids to Enjoy

Maddie & Kajsa (photo from maddiejamesfoundation.org)

The following article is one close to my heart as I went to high school with this incredible woman. This story demonstrates the power and potential kindness has when communities band together. I could not be more proud to be associated with some of the amazing people I went to school with that helped Maddie achieve her dream. Please read this story about her courageous journey to memorialize her beautiful daughter

Have you ever been to a great museum, landmark, college building or any other beautiful place that has someone’s name attached and you wonder how the amazing place came to adopt this persons’ name? Well, I would like to share with you the story behind the Ocean Institute’s Maddie James Seaside Learning Center in Dana Point, CA and her incredible Mom, Kajsa James. I promise you will never walk by a sign or plaque again without wondering who championed the donation necessary to make it come to life.

Meet 5 year old Maddie James. Maddie was a beautiful spitting image of her Mom with a maturity that reached far past her young age who discovered a deep love for ocean life after she attended one of the Ocean Institutes summer camps in 2010. According to Kajsa, this camp changed her daughter and even at the age of 5 had a passion for something important. So much so that when her kindergarten teacher asked the class on Martin Luther King Day what their dream was Maddie wrote, “My dream is that every sea turtle doesn’t eat a plastic bag”. She was in love with the ocean and how she learned the beauty of the life below the surface and how we must preserve it. Kajsa was sure this was going to be a huge part in her life from that summer on.

maddie turtle pic

Maddie’s “dream” when asked what her dream was for MLK Day. (Photo from maddiejamesfoundation.org)

She was right, but not in the way she thought. In January of 2011 was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor called Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma. She passed eight weeks later. As any parent would be in this situation Kajsa clearly wanted to do something to help her only child but there was nothing that could be done. That is when this amazing woman decided to 1. Spend as much time with Maddie as possible, 2. Make her last days some of her most amazing ones, and 3. Find a way to memorialize her. As she thought of how she could carry on her daughter’s memory one of her friends came to her with the information for the Ocean Institutes new learning center that needed a donation in order to be completed. $1 million was needed for the naming rights of this center. Instantly she said, “this is it” and she raised an astounding $1 million in less than 3 months.

Walk to raise money for the Maddie James Foundation. (Photo from maddiejamesfoundation.org)

Money was raised by Irvine High School alumni, owners of small businesses, $400,000 in individual donations, $100,000 in donations through her Mile for Maddie walk, and lastly hitting the $1 million mark at the Reaching for the Sea Stars Gala held on May 20, 2011, at the St. Regis Resort in Dana Point and hosted by four exclusive area hotels, the St. Regis Resort, the Laguna Cliffs Marriott, the Montage Resort, and Ritz-Carlton Resort.  Through the unparalleled support of amazing sponsors and over 400 attendees and capped by the extraordinary generosity of the Dana Point Tourism Business Improvement District, nearly $500,000 was raised in one magical night and achieved the miracle. Then it was official, the Ocean Institute had the funding to build the learning center and it was going to be named after a brave little girl. The Maddie James Seaside Learning Center opened its doors in May 2013.

The Maddie James Seaside Learning Center (photo from maddiejamesfoundation.org)


The learning center that is now open in Maddie’s memory where children can learn about ocean science, how we can preserve the ocean, love it and save it. Comprised of several learning stations, including a citizen science lab, a bioluminescence observation area, an aquaculture pen, a biological diversity lab, an ocean science landing and a boathouse with historic maritime equipment, students of all ages are encouraged to become much-needed ocean stewards. And if you are ever standing over the discovery tank, look down at the floor and you will see Miss Maddie’s shoes standing right there next to you soaking it all in as well.

maddie learning tank

The observation tank at the center. If you look closely, you can see Maddie’s shoes imprinted in the front to join the group. (photo from maddiejamesfoundation.org)

maddie feet

Maddie’s presence is always here. (photo taken by ISP)

Kajsa now works for the Ocean Institute as the VP of Development at the Ocean Institute. She raises funds for the “Adopt a Class” program for kids and classes that cannot afford trips to the Ocean Institute otherwise. Over 115,000 kids and 8,000 teachers visit the Institute each year and her goal is to have any and every child to have the opportunity to visit and learn the wonders of the ocean completely free of charge.

The Ocean Institute holds popular camps like the one that forever changed Maddie each summer for ages 5-17. And, during the school year, field trips for elementary school age kids start at age 5 and educational overnight trips are offered as well for older kids. There are also programs open to the public for all ages such as whale watching, family science nights, historic sails, parent-child overnights and discovery labs in the Ocean Education Center and the Maddie James Seaside Learning Center.


For more information on the Ocean Institute, their camps, programs, and how they are using the ocean as a classroom to teach children about marine science and the ocean’s health, please visit www.ocean-institute.org.

For more about Maddie and Kajsa and their incredible journey creating the Maddie James Seaside Learning Center please visit: http://maddiejamesfoundation.org/

maddie rainbow pic

178,336 people voted in the OC Register Hawaii photo contest. This photo won the $500 prize in which Maddie presented to the Ocean Institute’s CEO days before she passed stating, this is “for the kids” (photo from maddiejamesfoundation.org)