Barb Tomko will never forget April 9, 2012.
It was the day that she received word that her son Steve, who lived in Florida, had taken his own life.
The tragedy was unexpected. From all outer appearances, he had everything going for him. He was successful in school, was valedictorian of his class of engineers at Penn State University’s main campus, accepted one of many job offers and married his college sweetheart.
Despite all those seeming successes, he left behind a note describing himself as “worthless,” and that everyone would be better off without him.
Tomko, who lives in White Oak, told her family’s tragic story on Saturday at the 13th Annual Ray of Hope Walk at Twin Lakes Park in Hempfield Township. The event sponsored by Mental Health America of Southwestern PA drew nearly 300 people, the biggest attendance since it started.
“We gather today to raise awareness about suicide,” said MHA Executive Director Laurie Barnett Levine, LSW. “Each year the number of suicides increase — not just here but in almost every state. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Every 28 seconds someone attempts suicide. We know that is the second leading cause of death for our young people.”
The Center for Disease Control’s most recent report on the average life expectancy in the United States noted a drop in age, in part because of young people taking their own lives.
The Rainbow After the Storm was the theme for this year’s Ray of Hope. Survivors were given glass prisms and when their lost loved ones’ names were called, they came forth to hang the prisms under a rainbow fabric draped between two trees, with a dove on each side. Polyester filling was used to make puffy clouds that dangled over the rainbow.
“The glass has different cut angles and when the light shines through, the prism reflects as a rainbow,” said Rachel Ravis, MHA’s director of development. “It signifies that individuals can be that light that casts a rainbow in somebody else’s life.”
Her former husband took his own life three years ago, she added. “That’s what made me passionate about spreading awareness about mental health issues as well as suicide awareness.”
Sharing personal experiences is difficult, yet can be healing to the speaker and to those who are listening.
Tomko’s son was busy with his work, his marriage, and volunteering with an animal shelter and Habitat for Humanity, she related.
“Life seemed good from the outside, but things are not always like they appear to be,” she said.
In retrospect, she realized that there were subtle signs that her son was struggling with some issues.
“He was very affected by my cancer, and his brother was going into kidney failure,” she said.
Steve also took it hard when one of his best friends passed away. He slept a lot when he came back to visit in late 2011, but she thought he was just overworked and needing to rest.
The family’s life changed forever when they lost Steve. Tomko began the long journey through grief and healing and turned to help others in need. She is involved with MHA’s group L.O.S.S. (Loved Ones Stolen by Suicide) and also with the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) chapter in McKeesport. Through those groups, she can help others through their losses.
Tomko spoke about how her son continues to make an impact on her life and the lives of others.
“When you leave this earth you want to leave an echo behind,” she said. “Steve left an echo, so he will never be forgotten. He taught me to be a better person, and he is now at peace. There is never a day that I don’t think about him.”
Beth Crofutt, MHA’s quality management director, noted that there are an increasing number of outreaches to schools, and also school initiatives. One of them is the student organization at Greater Latrobe Senior High School, a national movement called Aveidum, which means “I got your back.”
Their goal is to shatter the silence that surrounds depression, suicide and other issues facing young people.
A group of Aveidum members attended the walk with school counselor Jackie Rider. Senior Jolene Mazur, the current president of the student-led organization, noted that her high school “has suffered some losses, but we are moving forward.”
Ethan Kammerer, treasurer of GLHS Aveidum, explained the four pillars of the movement that strives to make everyone feel accepted, appreciated, acknowledged and cared for.
“Everyone should feel welcomed and not be judged,” he said.
For more information, visit rayofhopewestmoreland.org.