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Ten years in the making, the Ocean Institute’s waterfront interactive center is now open. Named in memory of a 5-year-old girl from Capistrano Beach, the Maddie James Seaside Learning Center was completed after Maddie’s family raised $1 million for the project.

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By Andrea Papagianis

Nearly 1,000 guests gathered at the Ocean Institute late Saturday morning in anticipation of the long-awaited opening of the institute’s Maddie James Seaside Learning Center.

A decade ago, Dan Stetson, now the president of the Ocean Institute, pitched the replacement of the facility’s existing 100-foot dock. Little did he know of the time it would take, the changes that would be made or the little girl, 5-year-old Maddie James, who would inspire the center’s completion.

“I will never forget the day I met Kajsa James for the first time,” Stetson told the crowd.

In 2011, Stetson was introduced to Kajsa James and her young daughter Maddie. The kindergartner from St. Anne School had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Maddie, had attended summer camp at the Ocean Institute the year before, and wanting to spend time at her favorite place, the institute’s staff set up a touch tank tour where Maddie could examine marine life up close. During the tour, Kajsa made Stetson a promise.

“Kajsa came up to me, put her hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye and said ‘I’m going to raise a million dollars for you,’” Stetson recalled.

The institute’s $4 million project was stalled after the economic downturn, but by the time Stetson met the James family, just $1 million was need for completion. Maddie’s father, Collie James, and Kajsa began the Maddie James Foundation, and within three months—through individual donations, a gala event and the first “A Mile for Maddie” walk—they reached their million dollar mark.

Madeleine Reese James, died on March 13, 2011, at the age of 5.

On Saturday, almost 800 walkers participated in the third annual “A Mile for Maddie,” a 1.2-mile walk from Strands Vista Park to the Ocean Institute—this year corresponding with the Seaside Learning Center opening. With a fundraising goal of $100,000 to help sustain programming at the Ocean Institute, the Maddie James Foundation surpassed their mark by raising $108,000.

“This is a celebration of Maddie,” said James Wilson, the Ocean Institute’s chairman of the board at the opening and ribbon cutting ceremony. “This is a celebration of all the children, thousands of children, who will come here to be inspired, to be awed and to learn.”

Last week, Collie James had the opportunity to spend time at the new facility, carrying his daughter’s name.

“I was overwhelmed to see not just a dream come true, but to have it exceed every expectation,” he said, “and in between tears we marveled at what had been achieved here.”

James told the crowd just one thing was missing, the children.

“Well today, today because all of you are here … whether you knew Maddie, or you are going to meet her today for the first time, because you’re here this place is now truly perfect,” he said.


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