Maddie James: A Little Girl Who Captivated a Nation

The big night is here. Photo by

This past Friday, at the Reaching for the Sea Stars Gala, The Maddie James Foundation realized their goal of raising one million dollars for the naming rights to the new Seaside Learning Center at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point. We watched the sea turtle fill up as the night progressed, and as it turned a complete silk aqua; I couldn’t help but reflect on the past few months.

As those of you who have been following Maddie’s story know, the five-year-old was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor called Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG) on January 16, 2011 and given 6 months to live. Her short life ended eight weeks later. When her parents received the news that Maddie had DIPG, her mom, Kajsa, knew that she wanted to memorialize Maddie by having her name at the Ocean Institute—one of Maddie’s favorite places to visit. As luck would have it, the Ocean Institute was in the midst of raising funds to build a new learning center on the water. Kajsa, and Maddie’s father Collie, took one look at the plans and knew what their goal was—to have that building be named for Maddie. In order to do so, one million dollars needed to be raised.

The Maddie James Foundation was launched on February 23, 2011. By the end of that day, $10,935 was raised and $81,002 was raised by the end of the month. It was evident that Maddie had touched many people, but there was still a long way to go. People from all over the country started to pitch in and run fundraisers. From restaurants donating a percentage of the day’s sale, to jewelry parties, to marathon running, to mini photo sessions–communities were both selfless and creative in trying to reach that one million dollar goal.

May was for Maddie as the Foundation declared—four big fundraisers were held. First was The Maddie James Foundation Mother’s Day Boutique where vendors came together and donated the cost of their booth space, as well as a percentage of their sales, to the Foundation. Next were two events held on the same day—A Mile for Maddie walk in Dana Point (which sold out at 1,000 people) and Miles for Maddie, a 5k run which was held in Allen, Texas. After these, one last major event took place—the Reaching for the Sea Stars Gala which had the ambitious goal of hitting the one million dollar mark.

The silent auction takes place. Photo by

Walking into the St. Regis, Dana Point, (where the Gala was held) I took a look around and it was amazing to think that this event was planned in a mere five weeks. Surrounded by gorgeous grounds, over 400 people in their evening’s best, drink in hand, were bidding on the silent auction items. From hotel stays in Napa, to Angel’s baseball boxes, to original art, the items were amazing. Not to mention the free martini bar, margarita bar, and wine tastings. After the auction was closed, we meandered into the ball room to have our dinner—each course provided by a local hotel—the St. Regis, Ritz Carlton, Montage, and Laguna Cliffs Marriott, each more delicious than the last. Oh, and did I mention that the entire thing was underwritten? This meant that 100% of the night’s proceeds were filling up that turtle. A true showing of how a community works together.

When we sat down, a power point slide showing the sea turtle and how much was raised up to that point was up for the audience to see. The number was at $516,000. After ticket sales were calculated, the number moved up to $616,000. As the night went on, and the silent auction items had been figured in, the turtle filled to $660,000. Next, people bid on the centerpieces and the live auction items, and the turtle filled some more. There was a buzz in the air, people were getting excited. Then, out of the blue, Saint Anne’s school, where Maddie attended kindergarten, stood up and offered tuition from K – 8th grades, starting at $50,000—and ended up being sold for $67,000. All of this made for the turtle to be at $820,000. But, the million dollar goal still had not been reached. Next, the auctioneer asked people to raise their bid cards for what they could donate out of pocket, starting at $50,000.

Bid cards are raised for out-of-pocket donations. Photo by

As he worked his way down to $100, bid card after bid card was raised, bringing the total amount to $920,000. And this was when things really got exciting. Bruce Breinard and Johnny So, the general managers of the Ritz-Carlton and St. Regis, stood up to announce that the Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis, Marriott and Doubletree Doheny Beach Hotel (all in located in Dana Point) would donate the $80,000 needed to reach the one million dollar goal.

The turtle is full! Photo by

Crying, hugging and cheers of elation could be heard—it was a madhouse as everyone celebrated the exciting news.

Earlier in the evening, Collie had addressed the crowd. As he looked around and saw a ballroom filled with people, hearing clinking glasses, and seeing everyone dressed to the nines, he commented that he couldn’t help but feel that this was the sort of day he had always dreamed about for Maddie. Only, it involved his only child walking down an aisle and wearing a white dress. I imagine the Gala was a juxtaposition of emotions—it had to be the hardest evening, but filled with the emotion of reaching that goal, tears of joy as well as sadness were running down everyone’s cheeks.

Today, I still can’t stop thinking of how much was accomplished in such a short time—three months to be exact. When one thinks that the world is falling apart and human nature isn’t quite what it used to be, they need to hear Maddie’s story. One remarkable little girl touched an entire nation and was able to bring everyone together to work towards a common goal. As a result, her parents, her friends, and those she will never meet, will be able to go to a place to reflect and learn about what she loved most in the world—the ocean and all of it’s living things.

You did it Maddie.

Photo by

To watch a moving video about Maddie and the Maddie James Foundation, click on the link below.

Maddie James –

For more information on The Maddie James Foundation, click here.

To donate to the future causes of the Maddie James Foundation, click here.

To read Maddie’s Caring Bridge site, click here.

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  1. Michelle says

    I can’t wait to take my kids to the Ocean Institute when the new addition is done in Maddie’s name. Way to go!

  2. Truly incredible. Great article Alex!

  3. That is the most incredible story I have heard in a long time. Of course, I’m reading it through tear filled eyes but am happy to know that people do care so much. Any child is everyone’s child and I think that is why those of us who never met maddie follow this story, feel so much love for her and support for her parents. Thanks for writing this story…I’m going to pass it on!

  4. Alex, without you this would never have never happened. You really are a special person. Thank you for helping us be a part Maddie, Kasja and Collie’s dream. I am so thankful that we could all support to help build a amazing learning center at the Ocean Institute, a place that myself, Rob and our kids can enjoy and always remember Maddie. xx xx

  5. Sounds like a magical, emotional and beautiful night. This is such an amazing story about how a community came together numerous times to honor a special little girl. Thank you for sharing – this story has moved me many times over the last few months. Maddie will live on to touch so many more people and children in the years to come because of your hard work and generosity.

  6. Debbie A says

    Awesome! God had His hand in making this happen for one of His sweet precious angels.

  7. What a wonderful accomplishment to help celebrate the curious, active, and loving life that Maddie led, and help spread all of that joy in a different way! Her parents are amazing, as are ALL of the supporters! YEAH!!!!!

  8. Oh Alex. This is so overwhelming. So proud of your work and grateful for your writing. This just made my day.

  9. christina says

    Thank you for sharing that with us. I know I am a better person for having known about Maddie and her story.


  1. […] Through the generous donations at the Gala from the silent auction, live auction and various contributions, The Maddie James Seaside Learning Center became a reality that night, which was truly an amazing moment to experience. Alex over at gave an incredible recap of the event, and you can experience it by clicking here: Maddie James: A Little Girl Who Captivated a Nation […]

  2. […] daughter’s sudden and fatal diagnosis, and co-founding the Maddie James Foundation, which raised $1 million dollars in less than three months to secure the naming rights to the soon-to-be built Maddie James Seaside […]

  3. […] been two years since 5-year-old Maddie James captured the hearts of the nation with her love of the ocean and the animals living in it. For […]

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