New Naperville run combines mental health cause with teen's memory

  • Lucas Gerber was a competitive teenager who ran for nearly two years on the Naperville North High School cross-country team before he took his own life in fall 2017. His teammates are now planning a mental health fundraiser 5K called Huskies Run to Remember in his name.

    Lucas Gerber was a competitive teenager who ran for nearly two years on the Naperville North High School cross-country team before he took his own life in fall 2017. His teammates are now planning a mental health fundraiser 5K called Huskies Run to Remember in his name. Courtesy of Sheri Dolejs

 
 
Updated 11/8/2019 5:00 PM
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Jeremy Liu's name.

A teen remembered as competitive and cheerful. A risk a mom never knew she needed to fear. A cause a community coalition is advancing to save lives. A Run to Remember.

These are the elements of a new event set for Nov. 17 at Naperville North High School.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Participants will run or walk a 5K and browse mental health resources. They'll bring visibility to the cause of suicide prevention at a school that knows the sting of loss all too well. They'll raise money for resources such as Hope for the Day and the Megan Meier Foundation that provide coping skills, counseling, student programs and referrals.

They'll do it all in the memory of Lucas Gerber, a Naperville North cross-country runner who took his life two years ago when he was a sophomore.

Lucas' teammates are planning the Huskies Run to Remember, keeping their energetic friend in mind, senior Jeremy Liu said.

"He was really cheerful. He was really funny. He was always upbeat," Jeremy said. "He worked very hard and was very kind. We wanted to commemorate that memory."

For two years, Jeremy and other teammates have turned what would have been his birthday into "Iced Tea Day," gathering for the drink in memory of a craving the group would discuss at the end of sweaty practice runs.

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But they wanted their remembrance to take on a more public form. That's why a fundraiser for mental health and suicide prevention seemed the right way to go.

"They really wanted to do it before they moved on from high school to memorialize their friend and bring this issue to light that a lot of these kids are struggling," Lucas' mother, Sheri Dolejs, said. "It warms our heart that they haven't forgotten our son."

Lucas' family has felt the support as team members tried to put together a remembrance run last year, then learned all the planning it takes and renewed their efforts for this year.

Dolejs said the family appreciates the steps the teens are taking to make mental health more prevalent and suicides less common.

"High school can be a really tough place in terms of social pecking order and the academic rigors. We don't know exactly why my son decided he couldn't go on. We want to have people know there are resources in the community -- adults, friends you can talk to," Dolejs said. "Maybe we can help reduce these things on the front end instead of having to support people after a tragedy."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The Lisle family, including Lucas' brother, Ben Gerber, a Naperville North sophomore and soccer player, and his father, Ted Gerber, can feel "broken" at times. But Dolejs said they work every day toward a "new normal."

"As a parent, I don't even think suicide was on my radar," Dolejs said. "I had no idea this was something I had to be worried about."

Jeremy said many North students felt the same way -- until 2017. That's when three students took their lives, followed by a fourth in 2018.

Two of the deaths entered the public eye, resulting in a lawsuit settlement against Naperville Unit District 203 and the city; a state law that requires a parent or mental health professional to be present when law enforcement questions a student on school grounds; and a $50,000 fundraiser for teen mental health by a pizza chain.

"Before, it was more or less a blown-off thing," Jeremy said about suicide. Some students didn't take it seriously. Some would joke about it. "Now everyone recognizes the severity of the issue."

After the deaths of Corey Walgren in January 2017, Isaac Pedley that spring and Lucas that fall, leaders in Downers Grove, Lisle and Naperville townships formed the Youth In Crisis Coalition, now called the SEE Youth Coalition.

"We are very much about creating general awareness around these topics and opening up the conversation even more," said Sarah Breithaupt, director of youth and family services for Lisle Township.

The coalition is promoting the Huskies Run to Remember and supporting work to plan it -- despite several other mental health-focused events, such as the Walk 4 Life planned by teens at the Alive Center in Naperville and Ben's Memorial Mile, started in memory of a Downers Grove runner.

"We each offer something different that can be impactful," Breithaupt said. "I think it's very empowering for students to have done something on behalf of their teammate."

Dolejs said Lucas had completed a half marathon in Indianapolis with his father and brother shortly before he ended his life, and he spent nearly two years on the Naperville North cross-country team.

"He had obviously made a strong connection with a lot of these boys. He was very competitive," she said. "You're always trying to better your best run, your best time. That fit with his personality."

• If you or a loved one are in crisis, visit the nearest emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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