Tennis star gives children fighting cancer a chance to enjoy life
THERE ARE THINGS you do as kids that make all the difference in the world — not monumental stuff, just kid stuff — the kind that comes with easy laughter and no worries. But for kids fighting cancer, the cherished moments of childhood are seldom and few, until they reach a place that seems like heaven and one woman — a modern-day savior.
“This is what I, you know, work for,” says Andrea Jaeger. “And when the kids are coming and you just sit there and almost in celebration.”
In celebration because many were not supposed to be able to even make the journey. You see, it’s hard to be a kid when you’re terminally ill.
“We’ve had kids come out here that have been told, ‘There’s nothing we can do for you. I’m sorry you have three to six months,’” says Jaeger. “And we’re about giving them the opportunities of life.”
It wasn’t that long ago when Andrea Jaeger seemed to have every opportunity in life. You may remember her from the sports pages. She used to be pretty good at tennis. At 14, Jaeger wore pigtails and braces and had just turned professional. At 16, she was one of the best in the world, pulling in millions in endorsements and winnings.
“I was still a kid and I was an athlete,” says Jaeger. “And I didn’t mind diving for a ball and getting my knees all bloody. And they were appalled at my behavior sometimes.”
“They” were the older members on the circuit. And while her classmates from school were going to proms and getting their driver’s licenses, Jaeger was being chauffeured to tennis tournaments and controlled by a father she describes as domineering.
She felt she didn’t belong in either world.
Did she miss out on some important rites of passage? “Missing out on those gave me the opportunity to understand a small bit of what these kids with cancer go through,” says Jaeger. “They’re missing out on a lot more than just prom and homecoming. They’re missing out on perhaps their entire childhood.”
So the pigtailed pro decided to do something about it. While on the way to a tennis tournament at Christmas 1986, she passed a store and on a whim bought toys and delivered them to children at a local hospital. And it hit her.
“You just get so spoiled being a professional athlete,” says Jaeger. “So spoiled. These kids aren’t spoiled and they knock through the walls to make something happen for them and to survive that one day, that one hour.”
After being frustrated and repeatedly injured, playing the role of the teenage darling of tennis was not so fulfilling after all. Fate had something else in mind.
“And when I had a shoulder injury and seven surgeries I thought OK, here comes the rest of my life,” says Jaeger.
Center court for the now 35-year-old Andrea Jaeger is the Silverlining Ranch in Aspen, Colorado, where kids can be kids, not cancer patients. But getting here wasn’t easy. Jaeger had to practically give all of herself to create the program. She used all but $100 of her tennis winnings — $1.5 million — sold her car, maxxed out credit cards and even spent her pension investing in this dream — a dream some thought foolish.
“I actually had someone that I played with on the circuit who came to me and said, ‘Well why are you giving all your prize money and your pension and you’re going to be left with nothing? And these kids are going to die anyway?’” recalls Jaeger.
How did she respond to that? “At the time I was so shocked,” she says.
Shocked but undaunted, Andrea began treating a few children each year to a week at an Aspen hotel. But she wanted something more permanent. She also realized this was one game she couldn’t do alone. She needed money — and lots of it — to build a ranch. And she didn’t have to look too far.
Tennis superstar John McEnroe believed in Jaeger’s vision and spread the word to others like Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. With their help, the cash began flowing in. Snuggled between the mountain peaks in Aspen, the Silver Lining Ranch opened its gates in 1999. And the children brought it to life.
Rob is 13 and suffers from acute lymoblastic leukemia. He’s traveled more than 36 hours on four different planes to come to the Silverlining Ranch.
“I just like the fact we can relax here,” says Rob, “Don’t have to go to the hospital.”
Sonia, a high school senior from Texas, has recently lost a leg to bone cancer. “It gets you from all of the hospital treatments and all the bad news the doctors give you sometimes,” she says. “And it’s just kind of like a fairytale almost.”
Nate, 19, has had more than 100 operations. He says doctors tell him it’s a miracle he’s still alive. He’s lived long enough and traveled far enough to experience things most of us take for granted. When you have cancer, even touching snow for the first time reminds you it might be the last.
“It was a week of first skiing, first dog sledding, first time seeing snow and really the first time have this much fun,” says Nate.
What many may consider a bothersome element of winter is a small first pleasure for Sonia. “I had never seen snow before,” she says. “It looks so beautiful.”
During what might be the final days of their young lives, the ranch is a happy distraction.
“It’s people like Andrea that make this difficult time the best ones of our lives,” says Sonia. “We feel like receiving a gift instead of a problem, a burden, a struggle.”
“I mean these kids are, you know, they’re not planning their parties,” says Jaeger. “They’re not planning what they’re doing for Christmas. Some of them are actually sitting down and saying, ‘OK, these are the kind of clothes I want to wear. Music I want to be played. This is the makeup and this is who I want to speak.’ And they’re doing it for their funeral service.”
If strength has a face, it must be Andrea Jaeger’s. News of another death comes almost weekly.
“When we are skiing today, we’ll be skiing with the kids and I’ll be thinking about how, you know, we just got a call this morning about how Lauren passed away yesterday,” says Jaeger.
But like those before her at the ranch, Lauren’s memory lives on — all included on a colorful wall of names.
When Jaeger was 15-years-old and she made that declaration that this is what she was going to do for the rest of her life, at that time could she have envisioned this ranch and this foundation? “I actually envisioned a place where adults aren’t necessarily celebrated, kids are,” Jaeger says.
The camp operates seven sessions a year. This time she is hosting children from across America and even as far away as Wales, all expenses paid. They’re selected by hospitals that work with the foundation.
Is there a lot of discussion among the staff, among the children, about death? “Unfortunately a lot of the conversation with the staff is about that,” says Jaeger. “You hear a week or a month, sometimes a couple of days, after they’ve returned home and you hear that news and yes, it rips you apart.”
Jaeger and the staff have a policy about not attending funerals. Instead, they choose to hold on to the laughter, the spirit.
But does she sometimes have to sit down by herself and just let it all out? “I think if I did ever break down,” says Jaeger, “I wouldn’t get back up. So you tend not to do that. Because if you don’t, if you hold onto the horrific part of what cancer does in eating the body away, you lose.”
As each session draws to a close, there is an underlying sadness. It’s the last day of this session and some know they will never see each other again.
What are the departures like? “Hard, really hard,” says Jaeger.
There are no goodbyes here. They sound too final. Just a “see you later.” After the tears have been wiped away and the kids are on their way home, there is still work for Jaeger — fundraising.
Does Jaeger have a life of her own? “This is it,” she says. “I have an endowment to raise — $40 million. You don’t do that by taking weekends off. You don’t do that by taking vacations and holidays.”
In an era of self-indulgence, it is a rare thing to find a celebrity willing to give up a lifestyle of privilege.
How does Jaeger want to be remembered? “I’d rather have the kids remembered,” she says, “because I’ve had those years. It’s funny because I very, very, very rarely cry, but we’re going through a lot of kids here. I don’t need to be remembered.”
She’s a young woman willing even to give up a personal life. “I’m devoting my life, the rest of my life, everyday, every hour, to helping these kids with cancer,” she says. “And I’ve actually gotten a life back that far surpasses everything I could ever imagine. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Because Andrea Jaeger learned early, there are things you do as kids that make all the difference in the world.