Ocean Institute nears completion of the Maddie James Seaside Learning Center
By Andrea Papagianis
The flowered soles of a pair of shoes, kids’ size 10, stand imprinted in bronze.
Placed at the foot of an 800-gallon viewing tank, the impression of Maddie James’ favorite gold sandals will forever be a part of the Ocean Institute’s new Seaside Learning Center carrying her name.
“It’s just absolutely perfect,” said Kajsa James, of the small plaque decorated with the soles of her daughter’s golden sandals. “It was all about the gold sandals. I love it, it’s perfect.”
Warmly called Maddie, Madeleine Reese James, a kindergartner from Capistrano Beach died at the age of 5, on March 13, 2011, just two months after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. After her diagnosis, Kajsa said she wanted to pay tribute to Maddie in some way, and the Ocean Institute was the first place that came to mind.
In a twist of fate, the institute was seeking $1 million to complete the renovation of an ailing dock, into an interactive, waterfront facility.
Maddie’s parents began the Maddie James Foundation with hopes of raising $1 million to help complete the long-planned seaside learning center at the Ocean Institute—Maddie’s favorite place. In February 2011, they received their first donation and through additional contributions, a gala event and the first “A Mile for Maddie” walk, their goal was achieved by May of that year.
“The Foundation was really the driving force that enabled us to finish the project,” said Dan Stetson, president of the Ocean Institute. “It’s been the most heartbreaking, yet inspiring journey that the organization has ever been on.”
After making the decision to help fund the project, James said she held on to the Institute’s plans and looked at them often. Maddie would watch her mother looking at the plans, and asked one night “What is that?” James recalled.
“It’s what the Ocean Institute wants to build,” James told Maddie. “It’s their dream to build this.”
Then Maddie looked at her mother and asked, “Are we going to help them build it Mommy?”
“And I just said, ‘Yes, yes we are.’”
Now, after 10 years of planning, the Ocean Institute’s dream, now named the Maddie James Seaside Learning Center is nearing completion. Built directly on the water, the new 300-foot, 10-inch Ocean Science Discovery Landing features hands-on science and maritime history exhibits. Equipped with tanks filled with various aquatic species, a growing pen for white sea bass and moveable learning stations, the facility will be able to grow and change as their students do.
“As the research in the area changes, just as what the students are studying changes and the curriculum in their schools changes, this lab is designed to be as flexible as possible to accommodate their whims and desires,” said Julianne Steers, director of husbandry at the Ocean Institute, who has seen the project from infancy on through.
Pulling from the Ocean Institute’s nautical history program, the center also includes a 100-foot maritime pier. Featuring replicas of original fixtures on the brig Pilgrim that Richard Henry Dana, Jr. sailed to Dana Point in 1835, the pier gives visitors the opportunity to raise and lower sails on a historic mask and load cargo onto the Spirit of Dana Point, docked nearby.
“Being on the water and touching the water, it really speaks volumes,” said Steers, of the hands-on experience.
Steers herself was raised on the water and knew her path in life would lead to ocean sciences. She said the hope is to inspire more students and provide them with a respect for the environment and the ocean. With the expansion of learning facilities, the Ocean Institute estimates and additional 15,000 to 20,000 students will visit the center.
“I just can’t wait to see the kids here,” James said. “This is not a shrine, this is not a place to be somber. This is a place to celebrate her life and what she loved in the place that she loved,” James said. “To see that in every child who comes here is a beautiful legacy.”
On Saturday, May 18, when the Ocean Institute officially opens the Maddie James Seaside Learning Center, Maddie will be there, forever standing among her peers.
“It is very special to know that she will be here with Julianne,” James said.
“She’s part of my team now,” added Steers.
A Mile for Maddie
Registration for A Mile for Maddie is closed, but day-of registration is available and welcomed, said Kajsa James, for the Saturday, May 18 walk.
This year the Maddie James Foundation hopes to raise $100,000 to continue funding educational programming at the Ocean Institute.
Check-in opens at 7 a.m. in the Strand Beach parking lot (end of Selva Road, just south of Pacific Coast Highway) and closes at 9 a.m.
The official start time of the 1.2-mile walk to the Ocean Institute begins at 8 a.m. with waves of walkers being released every five to 10 minutes. In celebration of the Maddie James Seaside Learning Center opening, the Ocean Institute will host an open house from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. for all participants.
For additional information on the Ocean Institute and upcoming educational programs, go to www.ocean-institute.org.