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Tonders aid mental health center in memory of son

An 18-year-old Aaron Tonder (left) smiles for a photo in 1998 with his parents, Michael and Jody Tonder. [Submitted photo]

Most teenagers occasionally go toe-to-toe with their parents, but Aaron Tonder was different.

"When he would come home, we wouldn't know if it would be the good son or the evil son," said Aaron's mother, Jody (Freij) Tonder. "It was completely unpredictable."

It began with the 12-year-old blond boy refusing to do chores around his family's rural Two Harbors home. In the next seven years, Aaron grew more and more confrontational. When he was 18, his father, Michael Tonder, wrestled a shotgun from him during an argument.

"It was like trying to stop a runaway train at that point," Jody said.

After two years of psychological treatment, Aaron committed suicide in October 1999. He was 19.

Ten years later, Michael and Jody will contribute one of Michael's glass sculptures to the Miller-Dwan Foundation's ARTcetera event today to help raise $5 million for an outpatient mental health center that would treat children and adolescents like Aaron.

The center's focus will be to better serve an estimated 20 percent of children who suffer from mental illness but have few avenues to receive treatment, said Pat Burns, president of the Miller-Dwan Foundation.

In this tough economy, Burns said the foundation hopes to meet its fundraising goal in about two years. Once the money is raised, yearlong construction of the center could begin at a tentative location near its Solvay Hospice House in Duluth Heights.

After Miller-Dwan finished Solvay about two years ago, Burns said the foundation's directors identified child and adolescent mental health as the next big need for philanthropic efforts in the community.

Their research findings were staggering: More than 20 children commit suicide every year in the Northland and more than 160 were treated for self-inflicted injuries last year at the St. Mary's Medical Center emergency room, Burns said.

"That is a lot of kids. We should be outraged," Burns said. "We looked at that and said: 'It's time; It's really time.' ... We should do something about it and create some change here in our community."

Rick Gertsema, a child-adolescent psychologist in Hermantown for the past 11 years, said he maintains a case load of 200 to 300 mainly teenage boys and has a waiting list of three to five months.

"What happens a lot of times with kids is that by the time parents or families are stressed enough to pick up the telephone and say, 'We need help,' they find out they have a three-month wait," said Gertsema, who works at the SMDC Health System's Hermantown Clinic. "That is simply not acceptable. Kids don't deserve adequate; Kids deserve the best."

Michael and Jody Tonder tried to give their only son the best 13 years ago. They didn't have full health insurance coverage, but they took him to see about six psychologists and gave him prescription drugs. Doctors never offered a conclusive diagnosis, and nothing had a lasting impact.

"It was hard to sort out. There was a duality of mental illness and puberty," Michael Tonder said. "He was an only child, so it was difficult to tell if he was just a rebellious child or a normal adolescent. It's difficult to tell when the light goes on and you say, 'There is something wrong here.' "

Aaron grew up skijoring with his three Alaskan huskies, playing the clarinet, lifting weights and traveling to art shows across the country with his parents. When he reached Lake Superior College, he maintained a 3.0 grade-point average.

"One of the issues to be addressed in mental health that is so difficult for parents to sort out is, at what point do you just deal with it and when do you seek treatment?" Michael Tonder said.

Dispelling the negative perception of mental health counseling is one of Miller-Dwan's top goals.

"It's still difficult for kids to get services proactively," Gertsema said. "Many times, what we find ourselves doing is being reactive with kids. And by the time that we really need the intervention, when the kids are ready or the parents are ready, the entire family system is in crisis."

Looking back, Michael fondly recalls the annual camping trips with his son to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

"There was one time we got rained in, and we sat in the tent reading [Jack London's book] 'Call of the Wild' to each other," Michael said. "Those are the nice, normal things we did that are very dear to us now."

Note: The Tonders lived in Red Wing from 1987 until the mid-1990s. During that time Jody worked in corrections and Michael worked as a forester.