Motivation to support a cause or help others in need can come in different forms. For some, a pivotal moment can incite action. Others may just find themselves in the right place at the right time to do a good deed. Sometimes, it’s both.
For twin brothers Thurman and Torrence Thomas, it was a near-drowning experience at the age of 9 that inspired them to launch an organization that offers no-cost swim lessons and water safety classes to underserved communities. For Austin, Texas-based dealer Onion Creek Volkswagen, a chance meeting of the Thomas brothers offered the opportunity to get involved locally.
Thurman was at a pool party with a group of friends and didn’t know how to swim. “I wanted to be in the deep end with the ‘cool kids’ so bad. I decided to go as deep as I could but lost my footing. All of a sudden I’m flailing and kicking to keep my head above water – I was drowning.”
Thurman’s identical twin brother, Torrence, watched from the shallow end. He recalls: “I was terrified but [I] didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t swim, either.”
Luckily, one of the moms acted quickly and pulled him out of the water. “It’s something we will never forget,” he adds.
According to the American Red Cross, 10 people die each day from unintentional drowning. Two of those ten are under the age of 14, on average. The statistics are worse for Black and Hispanic children: 64% of Black and 45% of Hispanic children haven’t been trained to swim. 79% of children in lower-income households have few-to-no swimming skills.
Well aware of these statistics, the Thomas brothers formed Tankproof, an organization that gives zero-cost swimming lessons to kids who need it most. The brothers started the nonprofit in 2012 with a goal of helping ten kids learn how to swim. In their first year, they helped 70 kids. The following year, they helped 120.
In Tankproof’s tenth year, it has helped more than 2,500 kids learn how to swim.
Then came COVID-19. Tankproof kept helping at a limited scale with strict public health guidelines in place, but another issue impacting the children and families they supported started to rear its ugly head – food insecurity during the summer.
We thought it was a great chance for us to get involved and do anything we could do to help.
Millions of kids that rely on free or reduced lunch during the school year go hungry in the summer when school is out. Kids being home all day also adds financial stress to lower income families. Federal programs have made progress, but challenges that keep families from accessing meal programs remain – one of those is access to transportation.
“We were planning a 2021 summer tour during the height of the pandemic, when we thought, ‘What if we worked with restaurants in the cities we visit to help feed people in need?’” says Torrence. “So, we started the tour in Hammond, Louisiana, near our hometown to eventually make our way into Austin, Texas.”
The Tankproof story inspired the Volkswagen team to act. They connected the Thomas brothers to CJ Barnett, a Vice President of Onion Creek Volkswagen, a family-owned and operated dealership with deep roots in the region. Volkswagen’s network of dealers has a strong history of giving back to communities.
“Tankproof helps children learn how to swim and get opportunities that they wouldn’t have before,” says CJ Barnett, Vice President of Onion Creek Volkswagen. “We thought it was a great chance for us to get involved and do anything we could do to help.”
The Atlas Cross Sport and Taos were a major “leg up” that helped Tankproof finish the second half of its summer tour strong – and in style. The two vehicles and cargo space allowed the team to haul more resources to swim lesion locations and provide meals to families in need in Louisiana, Texas and California.
By the end of the tour, Tankproof was delivering 4,600 free meals per month. “We were proud to pull up in the Volkswagen SUVs and we appreciate the team at Onion Creek VW for helping us reach hundreds of kids and families in need,” says Torrence.