Published on: July 23, 2014by Kate McMahon
Stew Leonard’s flagship store in Norwalk, Connecticut, is a festive retail mecca replete with a petting zoo, animated singing fruits and vegetables, a costumed Wow the Cow high-fiving kids and record-breaking sales per square foot for a grocery store.
But customers entering the Disney-like atmosphere are also greeted by a serious, heartfelt message from family scion/company CEO Stew Leonard Jr. and his wife Kim:
“WE LOST OUR CHILD … Don’t lose yours,” reads the bold black-and-white type above their photo in the store.
It’s been almost 25 years since 21-month-old Stew Leonard III accidentally drowned in a swimming pool during a family birthday party, and Kim and Stew Jr. have been passionate advocates for water safety awareness ever since. It is emblematic of what a retailer can do in terms of serving a community, going beyond acts of commerce and really focusing on what ultimately is an act of kindness and compassion. Not only are they serving the community, but expanding it.
Their Stew Leonard III Children’s Charities has raised more than $2 million toward water safety awareness and education, with national and international outreach, and provided more than 200,000 swimming lessons to children.
And now, in the peak of family summer vacation season, the affable Stew Jr. isn’t pitching fresh produce and ice cream in his radio ads but rather their book and free app “Stewie the Duck Learns to Swim.”
“After you go through a tragedy as a family, you try to build yourselves back up again,” Stew Jr. told me, noting that drowning is the leading cause of accidental deaths in children ages 1-4. Stew and Kim created the charity’s mascot Stewie the Duck, a youngster whose older sister won’t allow him to swim with the “big ducks” until he learns the three basic safety rules.
The read-aloud book, aimed at children ages 2 to 6, is now in its eighth printing, available in English and Spanish, with more than 200,000 copies sold and thousands more given away and read to children across the country. The Leonards developed a free mobile app of the book for iPads, iPhones and iPhone Touch, which was accepted by Apple on April 24, 2012, the day that would have been Stewie’s 25th birthday. The app is now available on Android and Kindle, and nearly 10% of recent downloads have been from Australia. There is even a catchy jingle set to “Twinkle, Twinkle.”
The “Don’t Jump In ‘Til You Learn to Swim” rules are straight-forward enough for a child to grasp: Always wear a life vest, take swimming lessons and have a grown-up watch you in the pool.
Leonard implores adults to “keep your eyes glued every second” to a youngster near a pool, to prevent what he called “one of the worst losses you can have in your life.”
“It’s almost therapeutic in a way for my wife and I just to be able to put our head on the pillow at night and say, ‘yes, we did lose our child to a drowning, but look at all the people we’re helping,’” he said. “We’re so proud of our four daughters – including the three youngest who never met their brother – that they still embrace the cause and do book readings all summer.”
It is an important lesson, in two ways.
First, the Stew Leonard's example demonstrates how retailers can and should find issues that are personal and important, and use their expertise and marketing power to bring attention to them.
Second, I hope that you'll share the story of Stewie the Duck with anyone you know who would find the Leonards' story to be relevant. The Stewie the Duck site can be found here; sharing it could save a life.
Comments? As always, send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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