The grand opening of a new learning center at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point will include the unveiling of a brand new 300-foot ocean science landing, a 100-foot historic maritime pier and the fulfilled dreams of an inspirational and courageous five-year-old girl.
The Maddie James Seaside Learning Center is set to open May 18, and Maddie's mother, Kajsa James, is ecstatic to see enthusiasts of all ages share in the excitement of the new project.
“The beauty of the center is that there’s something for everybody,” says James, the president of the Maddie James Foundation. “There are so many different things for different minds.”
For the maritime history buffs, a research vessel and an accurate replica of an 18th century schooner will be tied at the dock, and learning stations for boom cranes, davits and longboats, operating a capstan and hoisting sails will be accessible. For science fanatics, a biodiversity aquarium will be available, as well as a pen for raising and implanting microdots in white sea bass.
“We like to think [the center] has the best of the old and the cutting-edge of the new,” says Dan Stetson, president and CEO of the Ocean Institute.
Stetson recalled the years in the planning of the Seaside Learning Center, as the Ocean Institute team hit a few financial obstacles along the way. The center itself, as well as the replacement of their former 145-foot-long dock, was a $4 million project, but the team was struggling to come up with the last quarter, with timelines for grants they had received working against them.
Stetson found a miracle in James and her five-year-old daughter, Madeleine, who had fallen madly in love with the Ocean Institute as a Sea Squirt during its August 2010 camp.
“[The Ocean Institute] changes children’s lives and their perspectives on the importance of the ocean and its preservation,” James says. “I saw it firsthand in my own daughter.”
In mid-Janaury 2011, Maddie was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, which had a zero percent survival rate, and was given only a few months to live. James and Maddie’s father, Collie James, made the decision to make her time left as memorable and beautiful as possible for her. When they were informed the naming rights for Maddie’s favorite place in the whole world would cost the $1 million needed to finish the project, they knew exactly what had to be done to properly memorialize their daughter.
The nonprofit Maddie James Foundation was created in February 2011. Awareness spread via blogs, newspapers, broadcasting stations, and hotels. Maddie and her mother were even the subjects of a winning Hawaii photo contest held by the Orange County Register — the prize of which was $500 that a remarkable five-year-old girl generously and genuinely wanted to donate to the Ocean Institute “for the kids.”
Maddie asked her mother if she could hold the five $100 bills before counting them into Stetson’s hands, saying the money gave her strength. She peacefully passed away a few days later on March 13, 2011, with her parents by her side, two months before her $1.3 million dream was achieved on May 20, 2011.
The Maddie James Seaside Learning Center was officially dedicated on June 11, 2011, the date that would have marked Maddie’s sixth birthday.
During the fundraising, the family-friendly 1.2-mile A Mile for Maddie walk around Dana Point’s coastal bluffs and ending at the Ocean Institute raised $100,000 alone. It has now become an annual event, with the proceeds going toward the Maddie James Seaside Learning Center. The third annual walk will be held May 18, the same day as the center’s grand opening.
Maddie’s spirit thrives in Dana Point, as her goals and dreams were made possible by two determined parents and an entire community who made the seemingly impossible possible. For James and Stetson, for those who knew Maddie personally and those who only knew of her after her passing, May 18 is supposed to be a day of celebration.
“What means the most to me is that for the people that have supported the foundation from day one, this is their day to come and see what they helped build and to really take pride and ownership of that,” James says. “Just to be able to do it on that morning of all mornings, it’s going to be extra special.”