At 14, Andrea Jaeger won her first professional tennis tournament. At 18, she reached the final of Wimbledon. At 19, a bum right shoulder all but ended her career. And now, at 28, she serves society instead of aces. This Friday, Jaeger will be honored at the White House for her work with the Kids' Stuff Foundation, a nonprofit organization that attempts to bring some joy to children who are suffering from cancer or other life-threatening illnesses. Jaeger is not only the creator of the program but also runs it full-time, year-round, unpaid.
For the past year Kids' Stuff has been bringing scores of stricken youngsters from around the country to Aspen, Colo., for a week of camping, fishing, swimming, horseback riding, water-balloon fighting and, of course, tennis—all under medical supervision. The foundation provides everything: food, housing, airfare, sometimes even medical supplies. "The idea is to give these kids a week in which they can forget about their problems and enjoy life," Jaeger says. "They have experienced some horrendous things, and I want them to get back as much of their childhood as they possibly can."
Once a pigtailed teenager whose temper was as explosive as her ground strokes, Jaeger has matured into a thoughtful woman. "I'm inspired by these brave kids, and humbled," she says from behind the desk of her Aspen office. "They lose their health, their friends and sometimes their lives. And yet their spirit never wavers. They look at life as a gift. The rest of us sometimes look at ourselves as a gift to life."
"Andrea's happiness is contagious," says Carolyn Ethridge, a resident of Aspen whose son David regularly supplements his chemotherapy with Jaeger's tennis therapy. "She laughs and makes a game out of every stroke. She was born to work with children."
Jaeger has been visiting children's wards since her days on the women's tour. She now finds in kids what she missed by playing tennis. "On the circuit I never really trusted anyone," she says, "but these kids have no expectations of me. They just like me as I am. They keep me grounded."
After quitting tennis in 1987, Jaeger struggled to make a new life in Tampa, working as a telephone operator and then as an airline ticket agent. She moved to Aspen in 1988 while recovering from a back injury suffered in a car accident. Two years later she set up the foundation with her own money, including the residue of the nearly $1.4 million she had won during her eight years on the tour. "I don't own a car," she says, referring to her reluctance to spend money on herself. "And all my clothes and jewelry were given to me."
There have also been gifts to the foundation. Martina Navratilova has opened her Aspen ranch to the kids, John McEnroe his wallet. Andre Agassi got Nike to donate equipment and sportswear. Part-time Aspen resident Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia chipped in a $200,000 matching grant to help Jaeger raise money. And last fall an Aspen couple donated 10 acres of land on which Jaeger hopes to build and centralize all the facilities for the children. She is already calling it the Silver Lining Ranch.
"You get very spoiled on the tour," says Jaeger, who is taking a correspondence course in nursing and child psychology. "The courtesy cars, the five-star hotels, the thousands of people clapping for you when you hit a good shot. It's easy to forget what's important in life."
She laughs a tinkling laugh. "I forget it a lot less lately."