In June 2018, when Nicole Hughes set off on her annual beach vacation with her husband and three kids—a summer ritual that her family and a group of five other families had enjoyed for seven years—she had no idea her entire life would dramatically change. It was during that trip that her youngest son, Levi, three years old, drowned in the property’s pool after he wandered into the water on his own.
“There was a three-sided fence that went around the outside of the pool, but there was no fence between the house we were staying in and the pool,” says Hughes, who lives in Blountville, Tennessee. “There’s this idea that drowning happens to neglectful parents who aren’t watching their kids when they’re swimming, but that’s not accurate, and my husband and I have always taken water safety very seriously. The stat that really got me was that 69 percent of toddlers who drown actually drown when they’re not swimming, like Levi.”
Within three weeks of Levi’s death and in the midst of her intense grief, Hughes created Levi’s Legacy, a nonprofit organization, with the mission of teaching parents to have a designated undistracted guardian to watch the water—even when no one is swimming.
Ultimately, it was Girl Scouts that helped Hughes forge her advocacy path.
“One of the key missions of Girl Scouts is to encourage girls to take risks,” she says. “In July 2018, I was incredibly vulnerable, having just lost my son. To be honest, I didn’t want to be an advocate for water safety, but I also felt desperate to spread the awareness I wish I had known.”
Instinctively, Hughes knew she would need a public platform to draw attention to concerns about water safety, so she says she Googled “mom blog with the most followers” and emailed the team at a popular mommy blog. She asked if the site would publish her article, in which she had written:
“There is a misconception that drowning only happens when you are swimming. But drowning also happens when you are 200 feet away from a pool, upstairs, eating Cheetos, wearing your neon yellow crab-hunting shirt, when you leave your mom’s side, even though you are usually Velcro-ed to her. Drowning isn’t splashing and yelling. It is silent, and it takes SECONDS.”
In the piece, she asked the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to get involved.
Her plan worked. Just one day after her article was published, Hughes appeared on CBS This Morning, and the next day she received an email from the AAP president setting up a time to speak.
From there, Hughes helped the AAP draft policy changes on drowning. Since that devastating day when she lost her son, Hughes has been a key AAP partner, helping to create a drowning prevention toolkit, speaking at the AAP annual leadership conference, and filming PSAs. She also appeared on Today with professional beach volleyball player Morgan Miller, whose daughter Emmy drowned in a pool on the same day as Levi. The two continue to work together to draw attention to water safety.
Hughes says that reaching out to the AAP through her initial article was “the scariest risk of my life.”
“I had no idea what would happen next, but Girl Scouts taught me to take the risk, to assume there are no obstacles, to be innovative, and above all, to make the world a better place,” she says.