Candace Thome, founder of the Swim Brayv nonprofit, stands with her mermaid-costumed volunteers at an event to impart swim safety education to children.

Candace Thome ’16 (left) poses with some of her mermaid-decked volunteers. The Mihaylo College entrepreneurship alumna uses the engaging costume to teach water and swim safety to children.

When Candace Thome ’16 (entrepreneurship) lost her younger brother to a drowning accident in 2011, she committed herself to supporting water and swim safety education. Today, her nonprofit and social enterprise organization, Swim Brayv, has more than 100 volunteers who spread awareness at events and workshops.

On a hot summer day, the cool water of a swimming pool, lake or beach might be inviting. But Mihaylo College Entrepreneurship alumna Candace Thome ’16 recognizes that water can be one of the most dangerous environments – for those unaware and unequipped to prevent drowning.

“People view swimming as a fun pastime activity, but they should really view it primarily as a lifesaving skill, then as a sport and thirdly as a fun activity” she says. “Water is powerful. You wouldn’t walk into the bullet of a gun or in front of a diesel truck going down the road. Water has the same force. Water and swim safety should be learned from a very early age so that you have that respect and know-how as an adult.”

Thome is the founder of Swim Brayv, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and social enterprise committed to imparting water and swim safety education to people of all ages, especially children. Developed due to the death of her young brother, Brayv, in a drowning accident in 2011 and her entrepreneurial education as a Mihaylo College student, the nonprofit startup features costumed mermaid ambassadors who embody water and swim safety at promotional events, such as concerts or outdoor fairs, and promote the cause through workshops at schools, libraries and community centers.

Drowning – An Underrated Danger

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are about 10 accidental drowning deaths per day in the United States, or about 3,536 per year. In addition to these, more than 332 people die each year in boating-related drownings.

About a fifth of drowning victims are children under age 14, and such accidents are the leading cause of accidental death for children aged four and under.

While many people view swimming as a fun pastime activity, Swim Brayv founder Candace Thome encourages people to view it as a lifesaving skill.

“People view swimming as a fun pastime activity, but they should really view it primarily as a lifesaving skill, then as a sport and thirdly as a fun activity” says Candace Thome ’16. Her Swim Brayv nonprofit is now offering grants for low-income families to be used specifically toward swimming education.

Thome notes that drowning is a risk throughout the lifecycle – young children commonly drown in backyard swimming pools; young adults in their 20s often drown in intoxication-related incidents; and the elderly can suffer from unexpected heart attacks, strokes, muscle fatigue or exhaustion when in the water.

She also has discovered that there are inequalities in the distribution of drowning fatalities, with highest risks for males and low-income urban residents, who are less likely to have swimming experience.

A few precautions can be game changers in saving lives in water-related environments. “If you are at a party or event around a pool, and there isn’t a single person who knows CPR, that’s bad,” says Thome. “If you have children, CPR is a basic necessity. Swim lessons reduce the risk of drowning by 88%. Even for adults, don’t swim alone. A lot of the drownings in the ocean happen when people swim by themselves, and the undertow is stronger than expected, or it pulls you out, and you panic.”

For Thome, an acronym that spells out the letters for the word “Brayv” articulates holistic swim safety:

B – be aware…Save a life by being more aware of your surroundings when near water.

R – rest…Without rest, injury or drowning is more likely to occur.

A – act fast…If you see someone struggling or hurt in the water (or if a drowning has occurred), act fast to save a life.

Y – you can help…Advocating – publically standing up for water safety –  can help lower drowning statistics over time.

V – victims didn’t expect it…Prepare yourself! Proactively prepare yourself and loved ones to be around water. Drowning can happen to anyone.

Launching the Concept – And Staying Afloat

Raised in Apple Valley in California’s High Desert, Thome was at Mihaylo College when she developed the Swim Brayv model.

“I was the oldest child, so I had already moved out to go to college, but my siblings were in high school, middle school or finishing elementary school,” she says. “When my brother died, I felt like I needed to keep myself together, so I grieved by reading. I did research, looking at obituaries to see who drowning happened to, why it happened and how often it occurred. I learned a lot and knew I wanted to start a water and swim safety foundation by 2012. But my plan grew substantially over the past six years.”

While Thome’s entrepreneurial education focused on launching for-profit models, her instructors, including Center for Entrepreneurship Director John Bradley Jackson and Associate Professor of Management David Obstfeld, were supportive of finding the right niche for her passion.

“Nonprofits were not my background, so fundraising and grant writing were not familiar to me. It was easier for me to come up with a profit model than write grants,” she says. “But I knew from being a cheerleader and going to mascot camp in high school that normally when there is a cause, there is a mascot, which is often a colorful animal. We chose the mermaid because of their realism and ability to have a conversation with the kids.”

A mermaid-costumed Swim Brayv volunteer sits next to a swimming pool.

A high school cheerleading background, including going to mascot camp, birthed Candace Thome’s mermaid concept. “We chose the mermaid because of their realism and ability to have a conversation with the kids,” she says.

Following her graduation from Mihaylo College in 2016, Thome established Swim Brayv, with a board of directors that included Obstfeld, who has assisted in providing business development acumen.

Initially focused on promotional events, Swim Brayv is actively seeking to diversify and expand its concept as its reach and impact grow. At a time in which celebrity drownings and increased regulatory interest in the rising drowning rate have drawn attention to the cause, Thome found no shortage of volunteers or audiences.

“We have a two-pronged approach – events and classroom activities,” she says. “At first, we would show up at concerts or fairs with our 10-by-10 canopy and get a huge line of people. We have two minutes to interact with each family or child, plant the seed about water and swim safety, give them some promotional materials, let them take a picture and then move on to the next one in line,” she says.

But at the end of her first summer, Thome started getting calls from educators and community organizations asking for workshops in classroom environments. “Now, we also do hour or two-hour events in settings such as libraries, preschools, schools and community centers, in which we see the same kids the whole time. We have water and swim safety quizzes and will do a 10-minute presentation, followed by a time for the kids to take pictures with the mermaids.”

Looking to the future, Thome is busy networking with leaders in the nonprofit sector and building relationships with such partners as costume designers and event organizers.

Over the next three to five years, she envisions an annual event, co-sponsored by other nonprofits, which would simultaneously provide entertainment and education. “People will spend discretionary money on concerts,” she says. “We want to collaborate with other nonprofits to throw our own festival, so people can come together for great food and great music, while learning about topics that make a difference, such as water safety and environmental sustainability.”

What It Takes to Be a Mermaid-Costumed Ambassador

Thome discovered that the prospect of dressing up as a mermaid at an outdoor fair on a pleasant afternoon was attractive to many people, but skill at communicating the organizational message and effectively representing the cause was essential for the mermaid mascots. So she developed her own web-based onboarding process, including brand standards, safety information and basic training, which is followed by in-person review and shadowing an existing mermaid or cause ambassador. She has also coined the term “mermodel” to encompass the mermaids’ status as role models.

But with a commitment to diversity, Thome is also working to expand her mermaid team. “We have male volunteers who want to be mermen, but we don’t have costuming for them,” she says. “But we don’t want to assign them to other mascots, such as lifeguards, so we are working on a best approach for the guys.”

At present, Swim Brayv has about 50 mermaids, who never stay in character for more than four hours due to the discomfort of staying in the costumes. “For an eight-hour event, we have two shifts of mermaids, because our performers will be hot and sweating at the end of a few hours,” she says. “We have some costumes that are more lightweight for hotter days, allowing a breeze to get through, but they are less realistic.”

Other Ways to Join the Swim Brayv Team

Only half of Thome’s volunteer staff don mermaid fatigues – the others serve behind-the-scenes in fundraising, marketing and even legal capacities.

“We have a stellar management team, so on anything from digital graphics to marketing to contracts and attorneys, we have some of the best in the world, which means that anyone volunteering will learn from some amazing people,” she says. “Our board has been discussing internships in the past year, and we are looking to fully set this up by the end of 2018.”

With a strong commitment to her alma mater, Cal State Fullerton is front-and-center in Thome’s quest for intern support. She is currently working with the Center for Internship and Community Engagement (CICE) to develop a program through the university.

Though Swim Brayv volunteers come from many backgrounds, Thome says a common thread running through many of them is a desire to share their personal experiences relating to the cause of water and swim safety.

“I want my volunteers to share their unique stories of why they are involved. Many of them have had similar stories about drownings in their families or among their friends or even experiencing a near-miss themselves,” she says. “Having them share their personal connections is important. I have to share my personal connection to lead by example. I want to remind people to take the pain that they’ve felt and not be scared or ashamed of it, because you never know the life you can save when you take that step and are willing to share that testimony and be raw with people. This is at the base of the culture at my corporation.”

Launching Your Nonprofit or Social-Enterprise Concept

Think a nonprofit or social-enterprise concept is a good path for you? Thome advises research to ensure the most effective approach to the cause you are passionate for. She suggests events that bring together nonprofit leaders, such as those offered by Mihaylo College’s Gianneschi Center for Nonprofit Research, for connecting with the field’s talent.

“There may be an organization that specifically aligns with the niche you want to help. There are a lot of nonprofits that still don’t utilize social media or even have websites, so it can be hard to learn about all of them,” she says. “But duplication is often not beneficial to a cause, unless there is collaboration, which can often be accomplished when social media is effectively utilized.”

Thome believes marketing is one of the greatest needs of today’s organizations. “Most nonprofits are budget-tight, and their managers have multiple duties that aren’t related, making them overwhelmed,” she says. “Most people who work in nonprofits are motivated to help a cause, but they aren’t thinking of marketing their brand. But getting people’s attention is the best way to expand your cause.”

For More Information

To get involved, donate or collaborate with Swim Brayv, reach out to the organization through their secure contact form.

For more on the Mihaylo College Center for Entrepreneurship, which supports business startup education for students and the broader Orange County community, visit them online or at SGMH 3280.