NEWINGTON - As the heat index rises and residents flock to pools, beaches and lakes to cool off, one family is urging people to keep a close eye on their children.
Stew Leonard Jr. and his wife, Kim, dedicated their life to spreading that message after their 21-month-old son, Stew III, drowned in 1989.
Next year will mark three decades since his death and the family is still increasing its outreach.
The Stew Leonard III Water Safety Foundation and Children’s Charities recently made a donation to Newington Parks and Recreation, to provide swim lessons at a lower cost for 100 underprivileged children in town. The organization has donated more than $1 million to water safety initiatives across Connecticut over the years, providing swimming lessons to 100,000 kids. Funds are also sent to charities throughout America.
“Our whole mission is to try to save one life,” Stew Leonard Jr. said this week. “It’s never too early to get your kids into swim lessons.”
The foundation and the American Red Cross don’t blame water tragedies on a lack of parental supervision, but a lapse in supervision.
The most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention count drowning as the second leading cause of unintentional injury and death for children and fifth-leading for people of any age. Every day an average of 10 people drown in the U.S. At least two are age 14 or younger.
U.S. Olympian Bode Miller is currently mourning the death of his 19-month-old daughter, who died in a swimming pool accident on June 10. The Leonards reach out to any family going through this, to provide comfort and support.
The couple’s four daughters are all adults now. The oldest was just three when her brother drowned.
“I let my guard down and Stew and I never communicated with each other about who was watching him,” Kim remembered. “If there is one point I’d stress beyond anything, it’s if you are going to have your child around the water make sure you or the person watching them is 100 percent engaged in that.”
With the Fourth of July coming up, larger pool parties can pose a high risk.
A grandmother in California saw the Leonards sharing their message on national television and just happened to be planning a party for 21 grandchildren this July 4.
“She called up and ordered a book for each child,” Children’s Charities Director Doreen Miner said. “She said, ‘I can’t thank you enough.”
It’s moments like these that reignite the Leonards’ passion for their work.
“It is very therapeutic for not only Kim and I but also our family, to embrace this whole effort and see all the good that’s come out of the foundation,” Leonard explained. “We look at Stewie the Duck at the icon of our son’s life.”
Stewie the Duck products are sold at Stew Leonard’s of Newington, 3475 Berlin Turnpike, or online at stewietheduck.org. All proceeds go toward water safety initiatives.
Kim recently published her second book, “Swim Time with Stewie the Duck” which she recommends parents read to their child around their first birthday.
There’s also the original “Stewie the Duck Learns to Swim” book and the Super Stewie Safety Toss computer game, featuring the catchy “Don’t Jump in ‘til You Learn to Swim” song.
These products are designed to be kid-friendly and fun, while imparting important lessons.
“It’s about getting that knowledge into people’s hands,” Leonard said.
Kim emphasizes that water safety should be taught right alongside other basic toddler lessons.
“Just like you teach a small child not to put small objects in their mouth, touch a hot stove or put their fingers in an outlet,” she said.
The Leonards have received the National Drowning Prevention Alliance’s Community Lifesaver Award, the American Red Cross’ Community Impact Award and USA Swimming’s Safety Accommodation Award. The foundation has also been recognized by the National Water Safety Congress.
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.