NORWALK, Conn. - Behind the swarms of Stew Leonards' shoppers, animatronic characters and fresh produce is a story of loss – and hope.
In the winter of 1989, Stew Leonard Jr. and his wife Kim lost their toddler in a drowning accident. Since then, they've worked tirelessly to prevent needless accidental deaths, forming the Stew Leonard III Water Safety Foundation in memory of their son.
"There is no reason this should ever happen again," says Kim.
Sadly, for children, it happens too frequently. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the second-leading cause of injury-related death among children under the age of 15.
To date, the foundation has raised more than $1 million for water safety awareness and education. It also provides swim scholarships and lifeguard training, and Kim and Stew have written and published two children's books that highlight water safety, "Stewie the Duck Learns to Swim" and "Swimming Lessons with Stewie the Duck." Both books, printed in the familiar Stew Leonard's font, contain informative pictures and memorable text -- and a simple, three-ruled message to the young reader (sung to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star):
"Don't jump in 'til you learn to swim/Cover your chest with a life vest/A grown-up must watch you in the pool..."
Now, Kim reports, their programs are poised to go national. Due to the foundation's growing partnership with the American Red Cross, which already sponsors summer swim classes in Connecticut, Kim is hopeful their message of awareness will "go viral."
She adds: "Kids need to learn basic skills that can help save their lives. The more kids who learn it, the more accidents can be prevented and more children's lives will be saved."
In fact, she says, after a fire department in a small town in California promoted the foundation's swim safety program (complete with a firefighter wearing the "Stewie the Duck" costume), there was a precipitous drop in the drowning rate among children. "It's just so simple," says Kim. "It saves kids' lives."