CHICAGO -- At Castle, an original exhibit at Chicago Children's Museum at Navy Pier, kids can dress up like royalty, mix up potions, dine at a feast table, and traverse wooden towers to create their own medieval-inspired stories.
The fantasy indoor play area is sponsored by the Thatcher James Swanson Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit organization created to honor the memory of its namesake, who passed away suddenly at the age of 7 in 2020.
"There's this beautiful place that demonstrates the kind of loving and fun spirit that he had," said Alessandra Swanson, Thatcher's mother.
"We have so much pain around this topic," said Thatcher's father, Tony Swanson. "To see others experiencing joy, that he would have wanted them to experience, does make us feel like he's still part of us and part of the community."
Tony and Alessandra created the foundation in the midst of their grief with a three-pronged mission in mind: to provide Chicago children with a good education, safe housing, and fun places to play. The Swanson's guiding principle for the nonprofit is to "be like Thatcher."
"It means to be someone who is compassionate and loving and to want to share the good things that they have in life with others," said Alessandra.
Thatcher Swanson was in 2nd grade at Catherine Cook School in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood at the time of his passing. The foundation now funds a scholarship as a part of the school's diversity and inclusion program, named in honor of Thatcher. The Swansons said his time at Catherine Cook created a curious and creative love of learning that inspired him to make an impact when he got older.
"He was really something else and had all these goals and dreams and aspirations," said Tony. "It also just hurt so badly to know that all these great things he was going to do for the world were gone with him."
Tony said it wasn't lost on his son that others were not as fortunate as he was. Thatcher donated his own 'tooth fairy' money to help purchase stuffed animals for Digs With Dignity, a Chicago-based nonprofit that provides homes to families who are transitioning out of homelessness.
"Living downtown he was very aware of the fact that we had a nice warm and comfortable home and the sad state of it being that there were many around us we could see that did not," said Tony.
The Thatcher James Swanson Memorial Foundation now sponsors quarterly moves through Digs With Dignity with an emphasis on families with children.
"Our foundation funds the moves and then volunteers from the community can actually participate in moving the furniture and setting it up," said Alessandra.
With education and housing covered, the Swansons looked for ways to help support playtime for Chicago kids, something Thatcher excelled at. A favorite of Thatcher's, the Chicago Children Museum boasts 3 floors of interactive exhibits, art studios, and tinkering labs. The pair finally settled on sponsoring the museum's Castle exhibit to pay tribute to Thatcher's well-known love of characters, story, and imaginative play.
"When we started talking with the Chicago Children's Museum we knew it would be a perfect fit," said Tony.
"The fact that we could do it with the idea of 'being like Thatcher' as sort of a north star to this experience was something really special," said CEO of Chicago Children's Museum, Jennifer Farrington. "It was so clear that what they really cared about was so deeply aligned with what Chicago's Children's Museum is about."
Alessandra said it's her personal goal to have Thatcher's name all over the city of Chicago because like any kid, he wanted to be famous. The Swansons said the work of the foundation helps them to feel closer to Thatcher, who they say will always be a part of their lives.
"I do feel him with us," said Alessandra. "He was just absolutely the light of our lives."
For more information on the Thatcher James Swanson Memorial Foundation, visit belikethatcher.org.