Kim and Stew Leonard and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal joined West Hartford Leisure Services representatives poolside to urge vigilance to avoid drownings.
By Ted Glanzer
Kim and Stew Leonard III have an unthinkable story they share in hopes that other families don’t experience similar tragedies.
Their son Stewie Leonard was just 21 months old in 1989 when he drowned while the couple was preparing for their daughter’s birthday party.
“I assumed Stew was watching our son and he thought I was watching,” Kim Leonard said. “We never said to each other, ‘We’ve got him.’”
The Leonards, on a sun-splashed July 5, were joined by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, West Hartford Director of Social Services and Leisure Services Helen Rubino-Turco, West Hartford Aquatics Director Frank Duncan and Stewie the Duck at the pool at Eisenhower Park to promote aquatic safety.
“My most important message to parents is make sure any time you’re around any type of water, you designate a water watcher,” Kim Leonard said. “A lot of drownings happen when it’s not swim time. It could be at a party. We had aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews around and sometimes you can let your guard down because there’s all these people, these eyes. But you have to have a pair of eyes on that child.”
Additionally, Kim Leonard said smartphones are “huge distractions. Make sure you put [them] away, too.”
“Now is a critical time of the year because look how beautiful this is with the pools and the kids and the families are all out around the water, but it’s also the most dangerous time,” Stew Leonard III added. “Drownings are preventable. That’s our purpose of being here today, to just alert all the moms and dads, grandparents, aunts, uncles, everybody out there, just watch those kids when they are around the water and make this a great season. I hope I’m not going to read about any drownings this summer.”
Stew Leonard III is the CEO of Stew Leonard’s supermarkets, which has six locations in Connecticut and New York, including Newington and Norwalk. In furtherance of their aquatics safety mission, the The Leonards are co-founders of the Stew Leonard III Water Safety Foundation. Since its inception in 1990, the foundation has raised more than $2 million for water safety awareness and education – including, lifeguard training and providing 10,000 free or low-cost swimming lessons to children every year.
“We’ve given about 1 million swim lessons in the state of Connecticut,” Stew Leonard III said. “We really want to teach underprivileged kids how swim.”
Blumenthal echoed what the Leonards said.
“The message here is tragedies can happen in an instant,” Blumenthal said. “A moment of carelessness and distraction, a false sense of security just because other people are around, a sense of complacency. The message here is three rules of water safety: be careful, be watchful and be vigilant for any kids in a pool at any time. And adults as well.
“Water is wonderful, especially at this time of year, but it is also a potential peril to the unwatchful and the careless.”
Seven people on average die of drowning in Connecticut every year, Blumenthal said.
“It’s all about prevention, education and awareness,” he said.
To prevent such tragedies, Rubino-Turco said West Hartford provides a total of about 1,300 swim lessons through its summer camps and through group or individual lessons.
The town has four outdoor pools, Rubino-Turco said, as well as Cornerstone Aquatics Facility, that offer lessons.
West Hartford also offers scholarships that pay for underprivileged residents to have swim lessons, Rubino-Turco said.
“We’re very committed to water safety,” Rubino-Turco said. “We have about 100 life guards we hire throughout the season for the eight-week outdoor aquatics program. We’re very committed to this awareness campaign.”
The Leonards, on behalf of their foundation, presented Rubino-Turco and Duncan with an aquatics safety plaque.
In addition, Stew Leonard III pointed people to the website stewietheduck.org, which makes available a children’s book written by the Leonards that they will send to families for free.
“It’s great to read to little kids,” Stew Leonard III said.
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