Stew Leonard III Children’s Charities
Twenty-five years after the accidental drowning of his 21-month-old son in a residential pool, there are still echoes of disbelief in the voice of Stew Leonard Jr. '77. “It probably wasn’t even five minutes of running around frantically in the front yard, in the backyard, over here, over there, [by] the swing set, in his room. Where could he have gone? And then all of a sudden we found he had slipped into the pool. He didn't know how to swim at that age, and he drowned.”
The CEO of the family grocery chain had been around water his entire life and never experienced a tragedy like this. “You have this false sense of security when you have little children around water.” In fact, drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for children under 5 and most drownings happen in residential pools. A “terrible period” of depression followed as he and his wife Kim mourned their loss.
“You go through the cycles of blame, guilt, denial. And then hopefully you get to acceptance. And then really the next thing is if you can hopefully help other people out,” Stew Jr. says.
That’s when they decided to help prevent other parents from suffering the same loss and make a positive impact for children throughout the country. The Stew Leonard III Water Safety Foundation was founded in 1990 with a mission of educating both children and adults about water safety. The foundation helps subsidize water safety and swim lessons for children at organizations such as the YMCA, and it also provides lifeguard training.
Thanks to the foundation’s support, the Hartford, Connecticut, YMCA taught every second grade student there how to swim, and Olympic Swimmer Janet Evans spoke to the children. The Yonkers YMCA has taught 11,430 students how to swim, and the Stamford YMCA trained 50 lifeguards. All told, thousands of children in Danbury, Norwalk, Fairfield, and Clifton have all learned to swim as a result of the Stew Leonard III Water Safety Foundation.
The Foundation has also published two children’s books on water safety: Stewie the Duck Learns to Swim (also available as a free app in the iStore) and Swimming Lessons with Stewie the Duck. Leonard hears stories from many of his customers about the impact the books have had, like the grandmother who thought the house was locked up while babysitting and didn’t realize her three grandkids—all under 6-years-of-age—had gone out by the pool. That was until the youngest came and asked if she could come out, because he wasn’t allowed to swim without an adult.
"My wife and I hear things like that, and we just go, 'We might have saved a life.' All we want to do is save just one life."
In 2006, the Leonards expanded the foundation's mission to address children's nutrition and renamed it the Stew Leonard III Children’s Charities. In 2009, Stew and Kim were awarded the Community Life Saver Award, presented by the National Drowning Prevention Alliance for personal advocacy in increasing water safety awareness.
To learn more about Stew Leonard III Children's Charities, visit the website at www.stewietheduck.com.