By Lee Warren | July 05, 2012, 10 a.m. (ET)
Sandeno
Kaitlin Sandeno lets Raelynn Smith try on her Olympic medals at Children's Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska.

OMAHA -- “Do you know Michael Phelps?” asked a wide-eyed boy who looked to be about 9 years old at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha last Thursday.

News was traveling quickly as Olympic swimmer Kaitlin Sandeno, who was in town for the U.S. Olympic Trials for Swmming, went from room to room on behalf of the Jessie Rees Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading hope, joy and love to children fighting life altering illnesses.

Sandeno, now retired, is a four-time Olympic medalist, earning a bronze at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and bronze, silver and gold at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.

“I do,” Sandeno said to the boy who approached her in the hallway and asked her about Phelps, who was her U.S. Olympic teammate twice. Sandeno also got to train with Phelps, too, when she swam in Ann Arbor, Mich., following her graduation from the University of Southern California.  

“You did?” The boy giggled with excitement.

“Yeah,” Sandeno said. “I’ve known him for about 12 years. He’s a good guy.”

An 18-year-old patient named Shawn told Sandeno he was on his high school swim team, telling her he enjoyed the breaststroke the most. She told him a story about how proud she was of her silver medal because she recorded her personal best time in the 400 IM at 4:41.57.

“To me, this was like a gold medal,” she told him. “It meant the most to me.”

That theme of overcoming and perseverance was behind each of her visits with the children. She let them hold her medals, usually prompting them to say, “Cool! Is this real gold?” She signed autographs, posed for pictures, and talked to them about video games, school, soccer, wrestling, art and whatever else they were interested in, hoping to make them smile.

And they did.

That is what Jessie Rees wanted.

Rees, a 12-year-old California girl, lost her battle with cancer earlier this year. But not before she came up with the idea of giving other child patients something her foundation calls JoyJars jars filled with toys and activities that are gender specific, funded by private donations.

Sandeno recounted what Jessie always said about the jars: “Nothing cheesy and no air,” meaning she wanted the content to be substantive and she wanted the contents to fill the jar without leaving an ounce of air.

“It started in Jessie’s garage, she filled them,” said Jennifer Nicholson, an Omaha-area educator who read about Jessie’s battle with cancer on Facebook and decided to get involved. She approached Children’s Hospital in Omaha about coordinating the jars with them and the first shipment was delivered this week. “Since she can no longer do that, her dad is carrying on her dream.”

According to her foundation’s website, Jessie filled more than 3,000 jars for kids. As of May 2012, 15,000 jars have been stuffed and sent to courageous kids. Jars were given out in Omaha, but they were not ready while Sandeno was there.

“Her goal was for every single child who is fighting cancer to get a JoyJar,” Sandeno said. “And so roughly about 50,000 jars is the goal. About a month ago, we finished our 10,000th jar, so we have a ways to go, but everybody has been great to volunteer their time. We have a lot of swimmers, moms, Girl Scout troops and people who went to her church who are stuffing these jars.”

Sandeno got involved in the foundation after hearing about Jessie and then getting a chance to meet her.

“To hear her story — she was just so positive and encouraging,” Sandeno said. “She never complained and she was always thinking about other people. And I was at a time in my life where I was done with swimming and I wanted to figure out my passion. Immediately, I was drawn to Jessie’s foundation.

“My story throughout my swimming career was about never, ever giving up. I had a lot of ups and downs, and that’s Jessie’s message — never, ever give up: Team NEGU (never ever give up). And just being able to use my platform and being able to give back to something way larger than myself, it’s priceless.”

Toward the end of her stop at Children’s Hospital, Sandeno walked into 16-year-old Raelynn Smith’s room. Raelynn is a budding artist, and she flipped through her sketchbook with Sandeno. The Olympian was genuinely impressed by what she saw.

“You’re going to be an art major one day, I just know it,” Sandeno told her.

And that’s what visits like these are all about — giving ill children hope and inspiring them to press on to pursue their passions.

Sandeno is also hoping to inspire more athletes to get involved.

“My goal is to get athletes in different cities to do this,” Sandeno said. “Our mission is to grow Team NEGU and encourage athletes to do this. And getting Olympic athletes involved is huge. Not a lot of children get to see Olympic medals, and they just light up when they do get to see them.”

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Lee Warren is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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