Thomas Family, Hope Floats Memorialize Fitz with Swimming Scholarships

Kids whose families can’t afford swim lessons can get a helping hand from the Fitz Scholars Fund, announced Friday in honor of Fitz Alexander Campbell Thomas, who drowned at 16 on June 4.

Fitz, said his mother Michelle Thomas, loved to swim—but many people his age and younger cannot. According to the Hope Floats Foundation, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping disadvantaged young people learn how to swim, drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for children younger than 5, and the second leading cause of death for children under 14. And the water can be even more dangerous for Black children or children of low-income families, who drown at rates as much as 5.5 times higher than white children.

According to USA Swimming, 79 percent of children from families earning less than $50,000 a year have little or no ability to swim. Around 70 percent of Black people don’t know how to swim. Thomas said that is a result of a long history of discrimination that includes segregated pools and lack of access.

But the Fitz, who was Black, was a swimmer from a young age, his mother said. And the new scholarship can help other kids across the country learn.

“Fitz really enjoyed open water,” Thomas said. “He enjoyed beaches, he enjoyed traveling and seeing new beaches, he was just a free spirit. I would love for everyone to enjoy the passion that he had about nature and swimming, the enthusiasm that he shared about teaching others to swim and giving others the experiences that come with the luxury of learning how to swim.”

She said when her family immigrated to the U.S., one of the first things they did was learn how to swim.

“Whenever there is bad, good must respond with even better,” Thomas said. “And so today we collaborate with Hope Floats to give the world hope, not just hope for this family, but hope for the nation as we deposit swim lessons into the lives of everyone who would keep themselves safe.”

Swimming, she said, is not a luxury but a survival skill, pointing to record years for hurricanes and flash flooding from climate change.

“When I first heard the news of Fitz’s passing, I knew I had to do something,” said Cindy Tonnesen, co-founder of SwimKids Swim School and founder and board chairwoman of the Hope Floats Foundation. “I also have a son Fitz’s age, and this is the community where we have been teaching water safety education for over 20 years. So, I wrote Pastor Michelle a letter, mother to mother, just to maybe give her a glimmer of hope that together there would be a way that we could find to honor him and pay it forward.”

To donate to the Fitz Scholars Fund at Hope Floats, visit www.hopefloats.foundation/fitz. A Gift of $50 provides three weeks of swim lessons for a Fitz Scholar. A gift of $100 provides six weeks of lessons, and a gift of $200 provides a full 12-week session of swim lessons.

If you or someone you know is in need of a scholarship to attend swim lessons, Hope Floats is also accepting applications. To learn more and apply, go to www.hopefloats.foundation/apply-for-assistance.  

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