Jun 18, 2014
10:08 AMHealth & Wellness
Son's Drowning Leads Leonard Family to Advocate for Water Safety Education
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.
The Leonards decided they would reach kids more effectively with awareness efforts if they used a fun cartoon character as a spokesperson. They came up with Stewie the Duck, and published two books on water safety: Stewie the Duck Learns to Swim and Swimming Lessons with Stewie the Duck. In the books, Stewie must take swimming lessons and learn water safety procedures before he can swim with the big ducks.
Stew Leonard Jr. explains that the books emphasize three simple concepts: learn to swim; wear a life vest; and a grownup must watch you when you’re swimming.
“Supervision or at least observation of everybody in the water especially the kids is critical,” says Mike Fields, executive director of National Water Safety Congress, an organization that promotes water safety throughout the U.S. “Lifeguards give people a false sense of security when in actuality the lifeguard is just another layer of protection. Most people drown within a few feet of safety and it happens quickly.”
While swimming in a family or group setting, Fields says somebody should be designated as a “water watcher.” This person is “designated for a specific amount of time, maybe 15 minutes.”
When around water, it also helps to remember that a real-life drowning is different than in the movies.
“Drowning is not what most people think it will look like,” Fields says. “It is very silent and quick. While you might expect someone in trouble to yell and wave and try to get somebody’s attention, in reality the person is using every bit of their strength and mind power to survive. Unless you are watching closely you may never notice they are in trouble until they go under.”
It’s also important to watch small children anytime they’re around a pool, not just when they’re swimming in it. According to the CDC, children ages 1 to 4 have the highest drowning rates, and among kids in this age group most drowning deaths occur in home swimming pools.
The Leonards have four daughters, three born after Stewie’s death, and as they raised their children they had to make a conscious choice about what the family’s relationship with the water would be.
“We live on the water, and I’ve grown up and lived on the water all my life—we have a pool in the backyard,” Stew Leonard Jr. says. “We had to decide, ‘Do we want to move inland?’ which we considered, with no pool, no water, or do we want to face reality. We decided “Let’s practice what we preach here.’”
The Leonards’ daughters were coached in water safety and started taking swim lessons as early as possible. The family continues to enjoy summer fun in the water, but does so safely.
Tom Laudano, owner of Aquatic Pool & Spa Service, says that there are a variety of modern safety devices available for pool owners.
“My recommendation is for people to make sure the obvious safety precautions are in place,” he says, “such as the proper code fence around their pool, self-closing gates that don’t push inward to the pool but which have to pull them open to get in the pool area, and gates that close behind you.”
Many people use the back of their house as the fourth wall of the pool’s fence.
Laudano cautions that “any door that has access to the pool area should be on a battery-operated door alarm, so that in the event a child should open up a door, the alarm will start screeching.”
For those who want the option of having an unencumbered pool, there are now pools available with removable fencing.
And when it comes to pool safety, fencing is just the beginning. There are pool alarms that will go off if the water moves, wristbands that you can put on your children that will sound if the child goes near the pool, and smartphone apps that can be used in conjunction with these devices to monitor your pool.
Many of these safety devices, including adequate fencing and alarm systems, are required for new pools, but Laudano says many older pools don’t even have gates. If you have an old pool, he advises making sure children can’t just wander into it.
“Check if the gates are self closing,” he says. “Over time gates will come out of adjustment and won’t properly close.” He adds, “having all entry points to the pool properly protected is very important.”
The Leonards’ four daughters grew up to be excellent swimmers. The Stewie the Duck books have sold more than 150,000 copies and profits go directly to the Stew Leonard III Children’s Charities, which has donated $120,000 in swimming scholarships, raised over $1 million to support water safety and nutritional awareness (which is a new cause championed by the charity). It has partnered with the Red Cross and continues to support water-safety efforts throughout the country. Kim Leonard says the organization has been a success and a great way of honoring the memory of their son.
“It really makes you feel good, that we’re a small part of helping other families from having to experience what we went through,” she says.Son's Drowning Leads Leonard Family to Advocate for Water Safety Education