Local mother starts national drowning prevention initiative after death of three-year-old son


It’s often said that change is rooted in tragedy. East Tennessee mother Nicole Hughes knows this first hand.

“If this is the role that I’m meant to play, I wish it wasn’t. I really, really wish it wasn’t. But it is…I’m going to do it, you know, for Levi,” she said in an interview Tuesday. 

It was less than three months ago when Nicole found her three-year-old son, Levi, face down in a pool while the family was on vacation in Alabama. “My first thought upon seeing my 3 year old face down in the pool truly was confusion,” she said in an interview Tuesday. 

Despite being a mother of three, a teacher and a Girl Scout troop leader, Nicole says she didn’t know the truth about drowning. 

“That drowning happens when you’re not swimming, that a child under 30 pounds can drown in less than one minute, that there is no struggle, that it’s silent, like why is this not part of our conversation, especially as parents,” she said. 

Nicole learned too late that drowning is the leading cause of death for children under five. Now, she’s on a mission to make sure no other family has to experience what she calls a preventable tragedy. 

Nicole sprung into action, just weeks after her son’s death, creating the Levi’s Legacy organization, which works to educate adults about water safety by distributing “water guardian tags.”

About the size of a credit card, the tags come on a lanyard and serve as tangible reminders to adults to keep a close eye on children when they’re near water. 

After partnering with Niswonger Children’s Hospital in Johnson City, Nicole is taking her movement national alongside other families who lost children in drowning accidents. She recently announced her partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics to develop a drowning prevention initiative to be shared in doctors offices nationwide. 

Nicole thought of the idea after reflecting on the lack water safety education she ‘d received in her nine years of parenting. “My pediatrician is the best of the best so if it isn’t being covered then there’s an issue on a national level of how it’s being prioritized in our culture…there’s no urgency,” she said. 

Click here to order your own water guardian tag. 

Click here for a list of water safety tips.

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