Locals Make Big Swim for Charity
Four Southwest Florida residents formed a relay team to swim the circumference of Key West.
From left to right, at this year's Key West swim: boat driver Neil Pokorny, Chiqui Zabala, Thomas Pear, Kayla Schmidt (solo swimmer), Julia Wreski and Swim Around Key West Race Organizer Bill Welzien
It’s summer again in Southwest Florida, and as the grueling heat beats down and renews our appreciation for air conditioning, many of us find a small escape in swimming. But while most of us usually take a quick dip in the pool or the Gulf, four local residents instead swam the circumference of Key West.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Chiqui Zabala swimming the Key West challenge
And rather than simply to beat the heat, these four residents swam last month for a greater cause. As a team, they channeled their passion for the sport into raising funds, choosing Haven of Hope International in Bolivia and Heart of Florida Youth Ranch as their beneficiaries. (Both organizations act as homes to orphans who come from very distressed backgrounds.) We spoke to the team ahead of their big feat.
Thomas Pear sporting the names of the Haven of Hope orphans he was swimming for
For Thomas Pear, a professor of English and communication at Hodges University, it was his fourth year making the swim. He first got involved with the program four years ago when he realized he wanted to swim for a greater purpose. After a student told him about Haven of Hope, Pear contacted the organization’s executive director, Alice Skaff, with a humble inquiry: “Do you guys need a swimmer, to raise money?” The rest is history.
The three others who joined Pear in this year’s swim, all for the same reason, were Chiqui Zabala, Julia Wreski and Kayla Schmidt.
Zabala was a swimmer for the Colombian National Swim Team and is a recently graduated athletic trainer. She said that before the Key West challenge, “It was like, ‘It’s just for me, it’s for my benefit, it’s for my workout’. Now it’s like ‘Oh OK, we’re helping. We’re doing it for a reason, for something that is really important.’”
Anacheli is an 8-year-old aspiring doctor who arrived at Haven of Hope with her brothers last year. When asked what inspired her to want to be a doctor, she replied, “I want to help people having babies. I want to take care of the moms, so the moms can take care of the babies.” Always smiling, Anacheli says she loves the color yellow and doing laundry for fun.
Wreski is a Fort Myers resident and stay-at-home mom who was all too happy to return for the Key West swim this year. “This is my first time doing it … for Haven of Hope.” Followed by a chorus of agreement, Wreski echoed Zabala’s sentiment of this year’s swim being more meaningful: “It’s for a cause. It’s not just for me, it’s for something bigger.”
Although Schmidt completed a 9-mile swim in Islamorada last summer, this was her first time swimming around Key West. Before her dip into the new waters, she gushed, “[I’m] really excited! It’ll be challenging, that’s for sure.”
On the topic of challenges, Pear, who suffered from a bike wreck last August, was cleared to begin training for the swim only a bit ahead of the event. The possibility of him swimming this year was up in the air until the team stepped in to save the day. Each swam a portion in a relay approach, so Pear didn’t have to tackle the entire distance. “If it wasn’t for this team, I don’t think I would have been able to make it this year,” he said. “So we’ve had a few obstacles this year, but we overcame them.”
A little boy from Haven of Hope
Wreski says that team spirit is a treasure shared among all those who love the water. “The camaraderie between swimmers is great. Everybody always supports everybody and helps everyone.”
Still, there was one elephant in the room we had to address: creatures in the open water. Turns out, a run-in with a shark is a lingering fear Zabala is dead-set on avoiding. “I’m a swimmer, but it’s a challenge,” she said. “I’m always thinking that it’s what makes me swim fast … or faster!” Pear joked: “I’ll try not to throw chum in the water.”
All joking aside, the efforts of the talented group have not gone unnoticed. “A lot of these orphanages don’t last long, or they don’t have good programming … (so) we developed a really good model that we feel meets the complex needs of the kids,” said Skaff of Haven of Hope. The organization, which takes in children who were trafficked or abused and provides them with vocational programs to help them succeed, works alongside Heart of Florida Youth Ranch.
Some of the children got a chance to swim, too, but at the Butterfly Farm in Bolivia. A trip to the pool is the area's equivalent of an American child's trip to Disney World.
Skaff shared with us stories of some of the children who have pursued careers after their time in the program. One young girl dreamt of being a nurse and is currently in nursing school, while a young man became a carpenter and is now mentoring and building homes in Bolivia. According to Skaff, their success can be credited to the endless encouragement they receive at the orphanages. “Whatever their dreams or aspirations are, we can teach them how to dream,” she said. With a nod to the swimmers, she continued, “That’s why I love what these guys are doing, because it’s so inspirational, and that’s what [the kids] needs to hear: ‘You can do it, you can be whatever you want to be.’ We feel like we’ve won when they’ve won, when they’ve succeeded and followed their dreams.”