Scholarship fund to help children learn to swim honors Northern Virginia teen who drowned

Hope Floats founder Cindy Tonnesen (left) and Michelle C. Thomas (right), the mother of Fitz Thomas who drowned in June, during an event kicking off a scholarship fund to honor the teen and help provide swim lessons to those who can’t afford them. (Courtesy Cindy Tonnesen)

In June, Fitz Thomas, 16, was swimming with friends in Goose Creek, which joins the Potomac River in Loudoun County, Virginia, when he slipped under the water and drowned.

The teenager was the son of Michelle C. Thomas, a civil rights activist and pastor.

Cindy Tonnesen, founder and board chair at the Hope Floats Foundation, heard about the tragedy and wanted to help.

“When I first heard the word of Fitz’s drowning, I just knew I had to do something,” Tonnesen said. “So I wrote Pastor Michelle a letter.”

The pair started the Fitz Scholars Fund, with a goal to help those in financial need learn how to swim.

Tonnesen said Fitz’s death struck close to home. She has a son the same age and is the co-founder of SwimKids Swim Schools, which holds water safety education classes in Loudoun County.

“It’s so tragic that mothers like Pastor Michelle have to have this experience,” said Tonnesen.

A National Institutes of Health study found that participation in formal swimming lessons was associated with an 88% reduction in the risk of drowning in young children.

“Just by being in swimming lessons and having those skills and that awareness, it dramatically reduces a child’s risk of drowning,” said Tonnesen.

There is also a racial disparity among those who are able to register for swim classes and get a swim education.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that African Americans, ages 5 through 19, drown in swimming pools at rates 5.5 times higher than those of white people in the same age range.

The disparity is greatest among children between the ages of 11 and 12 years, where African Americans drown in swimming pools at rates 10 times those of whites, according to the CDC.

“We want to make sure that all children have access to this lifesaving gift,” Tonnesen said.

The scholarship fund, launched on Friday, currently has a little more than $1,000, which would provide lessons for about five children and teens.

Tonnesen said it costs about $200 to for a full session of swimming lessons for one child.

“Our mission is to make swimming lessons accessible to all children regardless of socioeconomic level,” she said.

You can donate to the fund or apply for a scholarship on the Hope Floats Foundation website.

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