Hundreds of kids at Pleasant Valley Intermediate School listened enthralled as Jim Tkach told them about his son, Bo Tkach, and all his accomplishments in school and in sports.
Travis Bo Tkach, a 2001 Northern Lehigh High School graduate, loved the game of football. He was a two-time first team All State football player, a member of the 1998 Colonial League championship team, quarterbacked the first ever District 11 championship team at Northern Lehigh and played in the first Pennsylvania East-West All Star Game. Bo was named to ESPNs Academic High School Football All-American team in 2000-2001. He was also a two-time District 11 javelin champion. In 2001, he was named Most Valuable Male Athlete of Northern Lehigh. He was also the school's representative of the Best of the Best.
Bo accepted a football scholarship to the University of Delaware, transferred to Lehigh University and later to Wilkes University. He graduated Magna Cum Laude in 2007, as a member of Delta Mu Delta, with a degree in business and marketing.
Bo worked with young people in the Lehigh Valley, helping them develop speed and agility. He volunteered as a guest speaker at youth clinics and ran speed and explosion seminars for Southern Columbia, Marian Catholic, Northern Lehigh, Tamaqua, Palmerton and Lehighton High Schools.
Bo's proud dad told the PVI students, "In his short life, Bo had more accomplishments than some of us will have in a lifetime."
But for all of those bright shining moments in his life, Bo dealt with dark demons and Tkach talked about those too.
He explained that his son was diagnosed with OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and struggled with depression.
OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to do repetitive behaviors (compulsions), such as frequently washing your hands, or checking to see if the door is locked again and again, even though you know it is locked. You are aware that your thoughts are irrational, yet you are unable to control them.
"When he was young, Bo felt he had germs that would kill his classmates and friends. We knew there was something really wrong when he was about eight years old. He came to breakfast one morning before school and his mother noticed his pants were really tight. He had on six pairs of underwear because he was so afraid his germs would escape and kill his classmates."
His mother, Sandi, a registered nurse, knew there was a problem. They sought help and through medications and counseling, thought Bo was handling it.
Tkach said that like many mental illnesses, they disrupted Bo's life in ways that others did not see.
There was a collective gasp of dismay from the students when Jim Tkach told them his beautiful, talented and wonderful son, Bo Tkach, committed suicide in July 2007.
"I'm here today to teach you about suicide. I want to convince you to be a giver, a helper," he told them.
For the rest of the assembly at PVI, Jim Tkach, who was a former coach for the Palmerton and Northern Lehigh School Districts and Lehigh University, talked to the attentive and respectful fifth and sixth graders about three major topics that no one likes to talk about ... bullying, mental disorders and suicide. After the death of his son, he, his wife, and their other two children, daughter, Tristan and son Tyler, wanted to do something to help prevent the same thing from happening to other young people.
That's how the Bo Tkach Foundation, through the University of Michigan Depression Center, was born, with the motto of "Under every helmet and hat is a child who needs us." Its mission is "To create awareness for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and other mental health issues while providing essential funding for youth athletic programs, scholarships and otherwise inaccessible individual mental health screening and treatment."
"Suicide is the third leading cause of death of individuals in the 15-24 years old range," he related that stark fact.
The Foundation promotes positive mental health for students in the area through youth athletics, public awareness and financial assistance, benefiting 1,000 or more students a year.
He told the audience that from February 2011 to February 2012, the Foundation spent $23,000 providing scholarship awards to deserving student athletes, funding for many youth athletic programs in the area and financial assistance to students who would not otherwise have access to mental health screening and treatment. It supports mental health awareness and works toward educating parents to recognize the potential warning signs and symptoms of mental disorders and depression.
He said that mental disorders, depression and suicide are subjects so many people don't want to talk about and that there are schools in Delaware, where he now lives, that won't even invite him to come talk about it.
"Do you know that 100 kids a week commit suicide?" he asked.
He doesn't want another family to have to say good-bye to a son or a daughter, a brother, a sister because of a suicide. That's why he tells Bo's story to anyone who will listen.
"I want to convince you to be givers and helpers. I want you to be a friend. I want to encourage relationships that establishes trust. I want you to be aware and recognize changes in your friends. Are they stressed, aren't they sleeping, are they depressed, are there substance abuse issues? Parents, teachers, fellow athletes, friends should all be aware of changes. Also, be accountable for what you do. Don't blame anyone else for your actions," he said.
He talked about the Delta Force mentality of "No one gets left behind."
"If you have a friend, are you going to leave them behind when the going gets tough? Or are you going to stick with them, help them? That's what I want you to take with you when you leave here today. I want you to want to help others. Do something nice without telling anyone you did it."
After his son's death, friends of Bo told Tkach that when Bo was at Wilkes University, he was walking by on a very cold winter's night and found a homeless man. He picked him up, put him on a bus and paid for him to ride it all night long so he could stay warm.
A girl called Tkach and told him that Bo had learned she was dying from cancer and he called her every week to cheer her up.
"We didn't know any of these things until after he was gone. Despite his own troubles, he looked out for others."
He gave examples of stories in the news about the meanness and unkindness of others. One was of a girl in Florida who was extremely allergic to peanuts. Her parents asked her classmates to wash their mouths out and their hands after they ate to help with their daughter's safety. The parents of the classmates protested that it was interfering with their children's day and were unwilling to help.
"Why couldn't they do that for her?" he wondered aloud.
"My challenge to you and to the teachers ... it's not too late to change habits and be kind to others."
He ended the program with "Despite all the bad things that happened to our son, we have been very blessed with many many good things that he did."
As the students were dismissed to go back to classes, many that were moved by Tkach's words came up to him and thanked him and expressed their appreciation for the message he shared.
Tkach believes if he and the Foundation are able to save one life because of that message, Bo's story is worth telling over and over.