As the coronavirus pandemic continues to strain healthcare systems around the world, Andrea Jaeger has found herself getting less sleep.
The former WTA World No.2 is the founder of the Little Star Foundation, a non-profit that provides long term care for children with life-threatening conditions - like cancers - as well as support for their families. With the pandemic threatening lives and livelihoods, and sometimes even disrupting their treatment, continuing that work has never been more vital for Jaeger.
“There’s so many situations that we’re dealing with now,” Jaeger said, speaking to wtatennis.com by phone from her Florida home. “Our challenges are, okay, let’s figure out how we can best serve these families that are in the Little Star program and make sure we can talk to them about what they need.
“Maybe that’s an e-learning program, or the ability to get to the hospital safely and be administered treatment, or helping get the regular types of supplies, daily and emergency needs supplies to families.
“Some families, their parents aren’t able to work, so we’re providing financial assistance.”
Jaeger created the Little Star Foundation in 1985 after retiring from professional tennis, but her commitment to philanthropy dates back to her days as a player. The American used her own time and resources to visit hospitals and schools at every tour stop - long before the creation of the WTA’s ACES programs and WTA Charities.
“I knew I had a tremendous opportunity to travel the world and I saw a lot of need with kids and families in general,” she said. “I decided, when I was on the tennis circuit, that I was going to help in each city that I went to.”
A professional tennis player at age 14 and World No.2 by the time she was 16, Jaeger’s WTA career was brief but bright: she reached the finals at the French Open and Wimbledon, won a Grand Slam in mixed doubles and racked up 10 singles titles, but was forced to retire at 19 after suffering a major shoulder injury.
But during her time on tour visiting hospitals and schools, Jaeger soon realized that the impact of her one-off visits could only go so far.
“When I was on the circuit visiting hospitals, before I even started my own organization - and then I put in four years of research, as well - I realized that every single one of them said that they would prefer long term care,” Jaeger said.
“The one-day, one-moment programs [like visiting a hospital on tour] were great, but nothing changes in just one day.”
That realization led to Jaeger's creation of the Little Star Foundation in 1985, which put together holistic long term care programs for children with life-threatening - sometimes even terminal - conditions to improve their quality of life. Programs like sports, arts and equine therapy are provided free of charge and involve the family in order to allow the kids to “just be kids again”, while financial assistance - including college scholarships - provide an investment into their futures.
As a result of that long term involvement, Jaeger has built up a life-long relationship with many Little Star kids. Now healthy adults, some have even gone on to become doctors and nurses - and are currently on the frontlines of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have a small team at Little Star, but fortunately we have a lot of ambassadors all over the country,” Jaeger said. “So I can reach out to a doctor at a Detroit children’s hospital, or a physician’s assistant in Colorado on the frontlines - and they’re all Little Star ambassadors, they’re our network. We’ve known them for years.
“I can contact them and make sure that we can get them whatever they need, whether that’s essential and daily emergency supplies, financial assistance, educational programs. We know that they’re getting in the hands of the ones who need it most.”
Jaeger herself had a full circle moment after the launch of WTA 4 Love, a WTA Charities campaign to support and amplify the tennis community’s coronavirus pandemic relief efforts. The campaign kicked off with the distribution of N95 masks to hospitals and frontline workers.
“Some of the masks that went out were to kids that we had since they were 12, 13 years old, who graduated from our programs and we helped them with their college scholarships and now they’re doctors and nurses and physicians’ assistants around the country. And they were able to get these masks so they can keep fighting the virus on the frontlines.”
That includes Samina Khan, a Little Star ‘alumni’ who now works as a physician's assistant in Colorado at one of the hospitals that received a shipment of masks from WTA Charities and UNIQLO.
“Each night at 9:30 p.m., I check in with Samina to see how she is doing [and] make sure she is feeling okay emotionally and physically,” Jaeger added.
Continuing the Little Star Foundation’s mission is more important than ever to Jaeger, but it’s also becoming more difficult as the healthcare sector feels the pandemic’s strain. And with millions out of work in the United States, less people are able to donate money to charities like Jaeger’s.
“Other organizations have had to shut down, other companies have had to shut down,” she said. “Things that people didn’t realize were their entertainment or vital to their normalcy, are gone. With those gone and us still open as an essential business, we’ve had to get more programs in the hands of kids in hospitals and frontline workers. More meals, more supplies.
“We’re always consistently busy, but now even more so because there’s a greater need. I’m probably getting a little less sleep,” she added with a laugh.
“All of that obviously hits the budget a lot more, and we’re just hoping that later in the year people can get excited about donating again during all this! We always ask that if people can donate financially, great. And if they have no financial means to help, well then just say a prayer, just spread the word.
“We can all get through things together - no matter how people choose to help, each of those things can make an important and critical difference for us.”