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SI FOR KIDS
Former tennis star gives hope to terminally ill children
Posted: Wednesday July 07, 1999 01:08 PM
By Jim Huber, CNN/SI
ASPEN, Colo. -- She came to us as a phenomenon and in a very different sense of the word, Andrea Jaeger remains one still, many years later.
A pigtailed, teenage Wunderkind, she was the youngest seeded player in Wimbledon history at the age of 15 in 1980, the youngest U.S. 0pen semifinalist just a month later. By 1984, however, her career had come to an end because of injuries and burnout.
But during that marvelous stretch there was a grand butterfly still emerging, for as she spent her off time with sick children in hospitals around the world, the true phenomenon was gaining form and substance.
On those quiet visits, her heart grew and after moving to Aspen in 1989, she dedicated her life to giving terminally ill children a breath of life.
"The whole mission was to bring opportunities for children with cancer and other life-threatening diseases to enhance their lives and to make things possible on a long-term basis," she said.
Jaeger, now 34, established a charity, the Kids Stuff Foundation, and with the help of friends like John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova, David Robinson and Cindy Crawford, brought children from all over the world for a week at a time to smell the air and hear the sounds and somehow know that there is life beyond a hospital room.
But they stayed in hotels and ate hotel food, and that dream needed walls and a ceiling and its own kitchen.
One day five years ago, a friend and his wife, Fritz and Fabi Bennedict, changed the dream forever and soon others joined in.
"Fritz and Fabi stepped up and said, 'We believe in it and here's land for it' and Ted Forstman said, 'I believe in it and here's $1.7 million for it.' Literally, thousands of other people have come and said, 'I have 5 dollars, paint the wall, put a shingle on.'"
And now, nearly a decade after the birth of the dream, the $6 million dollar, 18,000-square-foot Silver Lining Ranch, built totally through donations including the ten prime acres of Aspen property, becomes reality.
As the walls took form, they also took substance. An artist named Ben Brown, over the space of eight months, at his own expense and delight, gave each child's bedroom life and laughter.
He also created a mural on a hallway that was begun during a session last December when the ranch was nowhere near finished. The painting includes several children, including one little girl, who offered poses of their own.
"She built up a rapport with Ben," Jaeger said standing in front of the painting. "And she asked Ben, 'Do you think you could paint me with two legs because I lost a leg to cancer?' She didn't have an artificial leg you know, so she said, "I'd like to have two legs.'
Brown, who was standing nearby, explained why the young patient had made the request. "That's how she sees herself; she sees herself whole," he said. "Even though she lost a leg to cancer, she didn't want to be represented that way."
And so, on the final day of June in the last year of the 20th century, as workers were still hammering and drilling, the very first children arrived to stay at the Silver Lining Ranch.
Jaeger was there with a wide smile to greet her new visitors at the airport. "Hi, I'm Andrea, I'm glad you got here. How was the flight?"
Twenty in all, with the kind of illnesses that have already changed and threatened their young lives forever, they were now eager to enjoy a week in wonderland.
The ranch, right inside the Aspen city limits, touches every soul. There is a medical facility and technicians to attend to the children's individual needs. There are playrooms, with the animated faces of Andrea's tennis friends looking on. There is a dark room for the young photographer. And then there is the great outdoors that surely will take their minds off radiation and chemotherapy, off the pain of their burdens for just a little while.
The group is always a small one and for good reason.
"I believe in the philosophy of one child at a time," Jaeger says. "If you can make a child smile or laugh, well, your place in the world has been preserved. You carry a lot of what the kids bring and when you see their strength, their character, their hope in their eyes and in their heart, it gets you through the darkest hours you could ever have fundraising."
And what brightens the heart of Andrea Jaeger these days are the children.
"You get thoughts of what they go through and you get caught up in the energy and excitement of helping and that's what I hold on to."
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