Since a drowning accident took the life of their 21-month-old son in 1989, Stew and Kim Leonard have worked to raise awareness about the importance of water safety — bringing their message to a West Hartford pool Friday morning.
Stew Leonard is CEO of the Stew Leonard’s grocery chain. The couple are also co-founders of the Stew Leonard III Water Safety Foundation, which works to prevent accidental drowning deaths.
Outside a pool filled with swimmers, Kim Leonard recalled her family's tragedy.
“We were getting ready for our daughter’s birthday. And I assumed Stew was watching our son, and he thought I was watching him,” said Kim Leonard. “We never said to each other, ‘You’ve got him.’ And that would be my most important message to parents.”
Everyday in the United States, about 10 people die from unintentional drowning.
For young children, the problem is particularly acute. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning kills more children aged 1 to 4 than anything else except birth defects.
At a press conference at Eisenhower Park in West Hartford, Kim Leonard urged parents to put down their phones and designate a “water watcher” to keep children safe in pools and at the beach this summer.
“It’s not a lack of supervision, it’s a lapse of supervision,” Kim Leonard said. “[We] were at a party. There were aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews around. Sometimes you can let your guard down because you think, ‘Oh, there [are] all these people — all these eyes.’ When you have to have a pair of eyes on that child.”
In a public health alert issued this week, the state Office of the Child Advocate said nearly 40 Connecticut children died from drownings between 2011 and 2018.
Those deaths also highlight a racial disparity, said state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan.
“In Connecticut, children of color are substantially overrepresented in the population of children who die from preventable drowning deaths,” said Eagan. “Sixty-five percent of all drowning deaths in Connecticut between 2011 and 2018 were children of color.”
Since the death of their son, the Leonards have raised more than $2 million to help train lifeguards and provide swimming lessons to children, especially kids who they said otherwise, couldn’t afford it.
“We’ll do 20,000 free lessons this summer, just through the YMCAs in Connecticut — also [in] New York, too,” said Stew Leonard. “We really want to teach underprivileged kids how to swim.”