Stewie the Duck, the bright yellow water safety mascot of the Stew Leonard III Foundation, is named for the toddler who tragically lost his life in a drowning accident. His parents, Stew Leonard Jr., CEO of the Northeast fresh food market chain of the same name, and Kim, co-founder of the foundation, spend their days educating families about the dangers hidden in poolside fun. Now, they're doing even more to teach the youngest children about water safety.
Ten people drown every day in the United States, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, two of those are children younger than 14. In fact, children younger than 4 have the highest rate of drowning of any age group.
For almost three decades, the Stew Leonard III Foundation has been teaching parents and kids about water safety through the book Stewie the Duck Learns to Swim and countrywide education programs. Through Rialto, California's program alone, the book has been read to 20,000 kids and the county's drowning rate has been cut by more than half.
"There's been stories that we've gotten from parents where their kid will actually get out to the pool, unbeknownst to them," Chase says proudly. "But the kid will come back and say, 'Oh, a grownup wasn't watching me and Stewie told me that I had to have a grownup watching.'"
The original book, though, was aimed toward older kids, not the 1 to 4 age group in the most danger of drowning.
"Our girls loved reading Goodnight Moon," Kim explains. "So I thought boy, it would be really cool to take our original book and simplify it so a parent could start reading this to their child around 1 year old and start making them familiar."
To take the foundation into the new digital era, the Leonards have also made the original book available as an app, where kids can read along with the book or have the book read to them. Stew was even inspired by the younger generations' screen obsession and the popular Angry Birds game to create a "Stewie the Duck" app where kids throw life jackets on baby ducks.
As the foundation keeps spreading the water safety message across different platforms, Stew and Kim also continue to share their heartbreaking personal story. The Leonards' 21-month-old son Stewie died during a New Year's pool party at their vacation home in 1989. According to Stew, there were about a dozen people near the pool when their son drowned. "Sometimes you feel like numbers are safety, but sometimes it might be more chaotic and distracting," he says.
Kim stresses that communication is key when kids are around the water. "I thought Stew was watching him; Stew thought I was watching him. We never actually communicated [and said] 'You're watching, right? You've got him.'"
"It's not a lack of supervision, it's a lapse of supervision," Stew explains. His daughter, Chase Leonard, adds, "The message for us is that it's preventable. There are ways, plenty of things you can do as a parent, to prevent a drowning from happening."
According to the CDC, most drownings among children ages 1 to 4 occur in home swimming pools, where there is no professional lifeguard on duty. But even in a public pool, Kim says, "The important thing you need to do, when you're in a situation where you're near water, is to designate someone to be the watcher."
Megan Bell, a foundation board member, shares the system she uses with her husband. "We pick a kid. And that's your kid for the afternoon. You watch that child around the water. If that kid wants to go in the water, you go in the water. If the kid's coming out, then you're out."
The Leonards stress a joint water safety strategy between kids and their parents: reading Stewie's books, taking swimming lessons, and constant family communication.
"We know after 20 years now, if the parent will take the time, the child gets it," Kim says. "It can possibly save their life."
Libby Ryan is Editorial Assistant for Parents.com.