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Sandeno’s Work with Jessie Rees Foundation

Article written by Kristen Louis

Kaitlin Sandeno, retired Olympic swimmer, sounded upbeat and excited when speaking about her work with the Jessie Rees Foundation. When we spoke, Kaitlin had been traveling throughout California visiting Children’s Hospitals and Boys and Girls Clubs teaching them the motto of the Jessie Rees Foundation: Never Ever Give Up (NEGU).

Even before becoming involved with the Foundation, Kaitlin lived by their motto of Never Ever Give Up. Born and raised in Southern California Kaitlin was always active, playing soccer and swimming. Because she was smaller than most children her age and asthmatic she had to work extra hard to hone her athletic ability, but by the time she was in high school she had proved herself to be more than just a good swimmer. Through her combination of training and determination, Kaitlin made her first international swim team at the age of 16, and by 17 made her first Olympic swim team. By age 21 Kaitlin had trained and competed in two summer Olympic Games all while suffering with back pain and severe upper respiratory problems. Even with her medical complications, Kaitlin never gave up. As a result of her dogged determination, Kaitlin was able to become one of the greatest swimmers in the world earning four Olympic medals including a Gold medal at the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece.

JessieIn 2008, Kaitlin announced her retirement from swimming. Having accomplished so much as a professional swimmer, Kaitlin was ready to explore the next phase of her life. Though she did not want to continue swimming professionally, she wanted to stay involved with swimming which lead Kaitlin to open a swim school in Southern California. During one of her swim classes Kaitlin was approached by a parent of one of her students. The parent told her about Jessie Rees, an 11 year old girl battling inoperable, incurable brain cancer.  The parent asked if Kaitlin might be able to offer some inspiration to the little girl. As it turned out, upon meeting Jessie Kaitlin was the one who was inspired. She learned that during her cancer treatment, Jessie had come up with the idea of JoyJars in an attempt to help other young cancer patients battle the loneliness accompanied with being sick and hospital bound. JoyJars are packages filled with children’s toys and games, and are offered by the Foundation to hospitalized children all over the world fighting cancer. Within ten months of being diagnosed, Jessica Joy Rees lost her battle with brain cancer.

NeguThough they only met twice during Jessie’s short life, Jessie and her kind spirit left an imprint on Kaitlin’s heart. Kaitlin approached Jessie’s father asking if there was any way that she could help with the Foundation and though Kaitlin did not hear from the grieving father for quite some time, he eventually contacted Kaitlin asking if she would like to be the National Spokesperson for the Jessie Rees Foundation. Kaitlin eagerly accepted. Since that time, Kaitlin has become both the National Spokesperson and the Director of Sports Relations for the Foundation. Through her work, Kaitlin has been spreading Jessie’s message to Never Ever Give Up along with distributing JoyJars free of charge to children’s hospitals across the world. To date, Kaitlin and the Foundation have distributed over fifty-five thousand JoyJars to children battling cancer.

NEGUWhen discussing swimming the nostalgia in Kaitlin’s voice is clear, but her voice becomes excited and her passion is clear when talking about her work with the Foundation. She is committed to spreading Jessie’s message of love, compassion and perseverance to people throughout the world. Kaitlin left her mark in the swimming community with her immense talent and is determined to help leave Jessie’s mark on the world in her work with the Jessie Rees Foundation.

Photo Credit: Bliss Imagery and Don Le Studio

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