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Treasured keepsake of the late Maddie James finds home at center carrying her name

The Ocean Institute’s Seaside Learning Institute was named after 5-year-old Maddie James who died from a brain tumor in 2011. Photo by Andrea Papaginis
Maddie’s parents started the Maddie James Foundations to raise money for the learning center at her favorite place. Courtesy photo

By Andrea Papagianis

In antiquity, sailors placed coins under newly erected masts as a token of good luck, signifying the moment when a shell truly became a ship.

Holding with tradition, a shining silver coin, with a tallship minted on one side, was carefully laid beneath the mast at the Maddie James Seaside Learning Center.

“It’s good to know that her favorite coin is at her favorite place,” Kajsa James said after the early morning stepping of the mast ceremony at the Ocean Institute.

A gift from her mother, Maddie’s favorite coin is now under the mast at the Maddie James Seaside Learning Facility, a sign of good luck. Courtesy photo
A gift from her mother, Maddie’s favorite coin is now under the mast at the Maddie James Seaside Learning Facility, a sign of good luck. Courtesy photo

Given to Maddie by her mother, Kajsa, on a family trip, the coin remained in the young girl’s treasure box, just the way she left it. After mustering up enough courage, Kajsa found her daughter’s cherished treasure, and holding the silver piece she turned it over.

“2005” it read.

The year Maddie was born.

Madeleine Reese James, affectionately called Maddie, a 5-year-old kindergartner from Capistrano Beach, died March 13, 2011, about two months after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.

In February of that year, her parents Collie and Kajsa James began the Maddie James Foundation, with hopes of raising $1 million to help build the long planned seaside-learning center at the Ocean Institute, Maddie’s favorite place.

Maddie had attended camp at the institute the summer before her death, and her parents knew this was where they wanted their daughter memorialized.

“She was a part of it and she will always be a part of it,” James said. “To know that for generations to come children will be here and be able to enjoy this place the way my daughter did, hundreds of thousands of children, it’s just a beautiful thing.”

By May 20, 2011 the foundation reached its goal.

“There is just something about this community that really embraced this cause and I don’t think it would have been possible anywhere else,” James said. “I will be forever grateful for what they helped build here.”

PHOTO: Kajsa James places Maddie’s favorite coin during a stepping of the mast ceremony. Courtesy photo
PHOTO: Kajsa James places Maddie’s favorite coin during a stepping of the mast ceremony. Courtesy photo

Now, named for Maddie, The Maddie James Seaside Learning Center is nearing completion.

Built directly on the water, the center includes a new 300-foot ocean science landing and a 100-foot historic maritime pier, complete with a boom and main mast—the latter housing Maddie’s treasure—for students to navigate and use actual sailing technology, said Julianne Steers, director of husbandry at the Ocean Institute. The center will also house a pen for growing white-sea bass and additional hands-on learning space for visitors.

“I know that once it is done, and once the children are here, that’s when the real magic is going to happen,” James said. “It’s not the ending. It’s just the beginning.”

The center will be finished—or nearly completed—by May 18.

Corresponding with the opening, the third annual A Mile for Maddie fundraising walk is scheduled for that morning. Participants in the 1.2-mile walk over the scenic bluffs of Dana Point, from Strand beach to the Ocean Institute, will be the first to tour the completed facilities.

“It’s a way for us to show our supporters this amazing facility and for them to be among the first people to see what they helped build,” James said, “It couldn’t be more fitting.”

Earlier this week, the Ocean Institute’s Board of Directors named James vice president of development. In her role, James will be responsible for raising funds to support the institute’s programs.

For more on the walk and to register, visit To hear more of Maddie’s story, visit The Maddie James Foundation at and for additional information on the Ocean Institute, go to


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