CHICAGO — At the Castle, an original exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Chicago on the Navy Pier, kids can dress up as royalty, mix potions, dine at the festive table, and travel through wooden towers to create their own medieval stories.
The fantastic indoor playground is sponsored by the James Swanson Thatcher Memorial Foundation, a non-profit organization established in memory of her namesake, who passed away suddenly at the age of 7 in 2020.
“This beautiful place showcases its loving and fun spirit,” said Alessandra Swanson, Thatcher’s mother.
“We have so much pain around this topic,” Thatcher’s father, Tony Swanson, said. “Seeing others experience the joy he would like them to experience makes us feel like he is still part of us and part of the community.”
Tony and Alessandra created the foundation in the midst of their grief with three goals: to give Chicago children a good education, safe housing, and fun places to play. Swanson’s guiding principle for a non-profit organization is to “be like Thatcher.”
“It means being a compassionate and loving person and wanting to share what they have in life with others,” Allesandra said.
Thatcher Swanson was a 2nd grader at Catherine Cook School in Chicago’s Old Town area at the time of his death. The foundation currently funds a scholarship under the school’s Diversity and Inclusion Program, named after Thatcher. The Swansons said his time at Catherine Cook spawned a curious and creative love of learning that inspired him to make an impact when he was older.
“He really was someone else and he had all these goals and dreams and aspirations,” Tony said. “It was also very painful to realize that all these great things that he was going to do for the world had gone with him.”
Tony said his son doesn’t lose sight of the fact that others aren’t as lucky as he is. Thatcher donated his own tooth fairy money to help buy stuffed toys for Digs With Dignity, a Chicago-based nonprofit that provides homes for families transitioning from homelessness.
“Living in the city center, he was very aware of the fact that we had a nice warm and cozy house, and, unfortunately, his condition was that there were a lot of people around us who weren’t there,” Tony said.
The Thatcher James Swanson Memorial Fund now sponsors a quarterly campaign under the Dig With Dignity program, with a focus on families with children.
“Our foundation funds the move, and then community volunteers can actually be involved in moving the furniture and installing it,” Alessandra said.
Having taken care of education and housing, the Swansons looked for ways to help Chicago children spend time playing, in which Thatcher succeeded. A Thatcher favorite, the Children’s Museum of Chicago boasts 3 floors of interactive exhibits, art studios and workshops. The couple eventually decided to sponsor a museum exhibition, The Castle, to pay tribute to Thatcher’s famous love of character, story, and imaginative play.
“When we started negotiations with the Chicago Children’s Museum, we knew it was the perfect solution,” Tony said.
“The fact that we were able to do this with the idea of ’being like Thatcher’ as sort of a guiding light to that experience was something really special,” said Jennifer Farrington, CEO of the Chicago Children’s Museum. “It was so clear that what they really cared about was so deeply connected to what the Children’s Museum of Chicago is about.”
Alessandra said it was her personal goal that Thatcher’s name be known throughout Chicago because, like any child, he wanted to be famous. The Swansons said the foundation’s work helps them feel closer to Thatcher, who they say will always be a part of their lives.
“I feel it with us,” said Alessandra. “He was just a light in our lives.”
For more information on the James Swanson Thatcher Memorial Foundation, visit belikethatcher.org.