Jun 18, 2014
10:08 AMHealth & Science
Son's Drowning Leads Leonard Family to Advocate for Water Safety Education
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They’ve told the story many times before but it doesn’t get any easier. On New Year’s Day, 1989, Kim Leonard and her husband Stew Leonard, president and CEO of Stew Leonard’s grocery stores, were at a family gathering in St. Maarten, when they lost site of their 21-month-old son Stew Leonard III. The young child wandered into a pool and drowned.
“I assumed that Stew was watching him and he assumed that I was,” recalls Kim Leonard, noting how when near water, if you take your eyes off a child for an instant, the results can be tragic.
In the aftermath of their son’s death the couple was devastated, but they decided to honor his memory by helping other families avoid similar tragedies.
“After recovering a little bit, and getting our senses back, we ordered every single book that we could find on water safety,” Stew Leonard Jr. says. “What we found was a lot of fun little stories about being on the water but there was nothing that spoke to children and parents about actual prevention. We were just amazed at the lack of attention water safety got.”
Kim Leonard adds that the available books that were actually on water safety were not parent or child friendly.
“Everything that was available was very dry. It was a list of things that you should and shouldn’t do,” she says.
The couple vowed to do something to change the culture surrounding water safety.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning ranks fifth among the leading cause of unintentional injury death in the U.S. Between 2005-2009, there were an average of 3,533 (non-boating related) deaths from drowning in the country. In other words, about 10 people in the country drown each day. In Connecticut, between 2005 and 2010 (the most recent year the CDC has statistics for), there were 201 drowning fatalities. During that time period, the highest number of drowning fatalities occurred in 2008 when 44 people died.
Most drownings can be prevented, say water-safety experts.
“In general we have two types of people who drown or get in trouble in Connecticut,” says Jack Harder, the American Red Cross aquatic specialist for Connecticut and Rhode Island. “One group is small children. The solution to that is supervision more than anything else. The other group that generally has an issue are males who are usually between 15 and 25 years old. That’s just because they’re swimming in places that generally aren’t lifeguarded, they’re not always making the best decisions at that age.”
Of course the danger water poses is not limited to small children or youthful males. Harder knows that only too well. When he was a child, his father drowned in the family’s backyard pool after he had a seizure and fell into the pool while he was vacuuming it. He never even intended to go in the water that day.
“My father was home alone when he was vacuuming the pool,” he says. “If you’re going to be alone near the water it’s generally a good idea to wear a life jacket.”
Harder and other experts don’t encourage water avoidance; they instead advocate safety measures that are simple but are sometimes easy to overlook. “A good amount of common sense goes a long way,” Harder says. “At the Red Cross, we don’t want to scare people from going into the water when two things, common sense and supervision, would really solve everything.”
These are the type of simple measures the Leonards sought to promote after their son’s drowning. Shortly after his passing they formed the Stew Leonard III Children’s Charity to promote water safety.