A Big Tribute to Maddie James—on a Small Scale

Dana Point resident Jim Swenson creates a model of the proposed Maddie James Seaside Learning Center.

Dana Point resident Jim Swenson, who created a scale model of a proposed seaside learning center, never met the little girl it will be named for. But  had one thing in common with the retiree: a love of the Ocean Institute.

On Jan. 16, Maddie was diagnosed with an inoperable, malignant brain tumor and died March 13 at age 5.

In the wake of her death, numerous fundraisers have taken place  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.

Man Behind the Model

As for the man behind the model, Swenson is described as one special man by Maddie James Foundation spokeswoman Wendy Peloso. She said he spent six months and many hours building the model for the pending  at the Ocean Institute in her name.

"He's a wonderfully interesting, energetic philanthropist and ardent supporter of the Ocean Institute," Peloso said. "The main building is named in recognition of the Swenson Family Foundation. It was quite the labor of love—the entire model is to scale, down to the last pulley and shingle."

Swenson, who is retired, is a native of Duluth, MN, where he majored in chemistry and created a circuit board company called Details. He sold the company several years ago and has spent much time on the OI board for many years.

Why did he want to build the model?

According to Susan Hoover Miller of the Ocean Institute, "Jim and his wife Sue love the Ocean Institute, and he believed—correctly—that this would be an excellent tool for us to use with our fundraising for this project."

Howard said that while Swenson never met the 5-year-old, "he was very touched by her story."

Swenson, also a board member of California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, also built for the college a model of a building it wanted to fund, and he loves to build environments for model trains.

Why a Learning Center

Maddie's fascination with the ocean started early on, according to Kajsa James, president of the Maddie James Foundation.

"We've always lived near the ocean," she said, and the ocean had been part of Maddie's daily life. That's why they chose the Ocean Institute as a way to honor their daughter. The institute is in the final stages of fundraising for the Seaside Learning Center.  The project will offer new "on the water" learning opportunities and will complement its Ocean Education Center.     Reaching the $1-million goal would allow construction to begin this summer. 

The model is on display in the lobby of the Ocean Institute, and the public is invited to view it.

The fundraiser Walk a Mile for Maddie will be held May 14. Read the story here.


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