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Maddie James, Gone but Not Forgotten

Businesses rally to raise funds to build $1-million learning center at the Ocean Institute in memory of a 5-year-old who died March 13.

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Little may be gone, but she is far from forgotten.

On Jan. 16, the fair-haired, blue-eyed Maddie, was diagnosed with an inoperable, malignant brain tumor and died March 13.

In the wake of her death, numerous fundraisers have taken place to help raise funds for the Maddie James Seaside Learning Center at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, one of her favorite places. And more fundraisers are planned.

The goal is to raise $1 million by June 11, on what would have been Maddie's sixth birthday. According to Wendy Peloso, who is managing most of the fundraisers, more than $300,000 has been raised.

“People from all over the country have been caught up in Maddie’s story and just want to help,” said Peloso, who worked at a local law firm with Maddie’s father, Collie James. “Maddie was a very unique little girl who touched everyone. She had so many interests other than Barbie, and everyone loved her. Like her mother has said, she was so smart and knew so much beyond her years, she was like an old soul.”

A Living Legacy

And because her parents, Collie and Kajsa, are passionate about memorializing their daughter, they are working feverishly, along with many others, to raise the $1 million.

Maddie’s website says the Seaside Learning Center will be “a place where they, and everyone who loves her, can go and remember her. A place where other children and their families can visit and make memories and learn about the ocean and its preservation.”

The Ocean Institute is in the final phase of a $4-million capital campaign to create new ocean-side programs and facilities that will complement the Ocean Education Center. To be built right “on the water,” the planned Seaside Learning Center will introduce thousands of K-through-12 students and public visitors to current and emerging issues in oceanography, environmental science and maritime history.

The Seaside Learning Center project is shovel-ready, and all permits are in place. All that is missing are the necessary funds. Depending on success with fundraising, building is planned for summer or fall.

Dan Stetson, president and CEO of the Ocean Institute said, "We would be honored to have our Seaside Learning Center commemorate Maddie's life by creating a place where everyone who loves Maddie can go and remember her, as well as a place where other children and their families can visit, share memories, and learn about the ocean and its preservation.”

On a local level, a number of home-based and other businesses have stepped up to help the Maddie James Foundation reach its goal.


On March 28, the Laguna Niguel  held a fundraiser for the foundation that kept the chain busy with customers throughout the day and raised about $600. 

“The awareness was a huge part of this event for us ... we hope we can help make the goal of the Maddie James Foundation a reality. It will truly be a gift that the community can enjoy for years to come as we remember the spunk and spirit of this precious little girl who loved the ocean,” said Tam Falshaw, Chick-fil-A Laguna Niguel marketing director.

Nearby, in San Clemente, clothing designer  Rachel Luiz of Tiny Turnip created a caricature of Maddie that she has emblazoned onto T-shirts that are selling well. She said 50 percent of the proceeds are going to the foundation and to date, $1,500 has been raised.

The image Luiz created of Maddie was also used on the child's memorial program.

Luiz said a set of photos were sent to her by Maddie's mom, Kasja, a few weeks ago of the little girl dancing at a luau in Hawaii, where they went through  Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“I could not hold back the tears ... to see a picture capturing Maddie in almost the exact pose I had pictured in my head!” she said.

In Corona, Mernie Caro Empalmado is selling Go Green Lunch Boxes through June 11 via home-based business  Ink Loves Paper.

She will donate $5 of every lunch box set purchase to the foundation.  

“I went to high school with Kajsa James, and I felt passionate about helping her family raise funds for the Maddie James Seaside Learning Center,” she said. “I never had the opportunity to meet Maddie but, like so many others, was touched by her story.”

In addition to planning other local fundraisers, developing marketing and promotional materials, Caro Empalmado has also served on the fundraising committee for the Maddie James Foundation.

“I wanted to link a product to the foundation that could benefit children who would also benefit from the building of the Maddie James Seaside Learning Center.”

She said that since the launch of the promotion just a few days ago, she has sold more than 50 lunch boxes.

For the Maddie James Foundation promotion, each lunch box set is $32.00 plus tax and shipping. This includes the carrying case (choose from 10 fun patterns), a 9-ounce, 100 percent stainless-steel bottle and leak-proof BPA-free food box.  Orders for Go Green Lunch Boxes have come  from as far away as Virginia and Texas.  

In Carlsbad, Denise Vakili and daughter Sierra, 9, design jewelry for various organizations including the foundation through their company, A Charm for Charity.

The two designed a sterling-silver sea turtle, which is the foundaiton's logo, in honor of the little girl who loved anything to do with the ocean and its creatures.

“We just heard about Maddie’s story through Twitter and Facebook,” Denise said. “We wanted to do something that would help the foundation raise the money. People always like a memento or reminder of someone. We thought the sea turtle because it is the foundation's logo and that it would be perfect because of Maddie’s love of the sea.”

The necklace is an 18-inch sterling-silver chain with a Bali silver sea turtle charm. The item must pre-ordered and does not include shipping. Necklaces will be delivered to a fundraising event at Il Fornaio in Irvine on April 21.

In Texas there are also fundraising efforts. The bakery  WeMe of Dallas is raising money for the foundation.

“Maddie’s father, Collie, and I grew up in the same neighborhood, and he was/is good friends with my brother,” said Christine Carey of WeMe of Dallas.

She said her brother and a few friends are holding a Miles for Maddie Race.

“Raising money for the foundation has given everyone something tangible that we can do for Collie, Kajsa and Maddie from so far away," she said. "My kids have never been to California, but we are saving up to make the trip as soon as the Maddie James Seaside Learning Center opens.”

In Newport Beach, the Ty Alexander Salon, where Maddie’s parents go for services, hosted a fundraiser March 25 that raised about $8,000. The salon offered blowouts, hair and eyebrow treatments.

In the weeks to come, other fundraising events are scheduled, including a 1.25-mile beach walk in Dana Point on May 14, and a gala sometime in June.

For more information, visit the the Maddie James Foundation.

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