Dairy Queen ambassador's first act: Let's talk about teen suicide
I am now the proud ambassador of a Dairy Queen. (Please hold your applause.)
The title was bestowed upon me recently during a private ceremony in Naperville, Ill., at a Dairy Queen tucked in a humble strip mall.
A column I wrote back in July trumpeted my love of ice cream and desire to advocate for "simple, traditional frozen-dairy delights." The owner of the Naperville Dairy Queen responded with an ambassadorship offer and I, naturally, accepted.
As silly and fun as all that was, this column now needs to take a more serious turn. That's because my first act as ambassador is to tell you the story of the Dairy Queen's owner, Karen Moloney, and the tragic event that led her to devote considerable time and energy to raising awareness of youth suicide.
Moloney had, for many of her years, worked as a waitress. In 2001, she became restless: "I started wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life."
The Dairy Queen on Wehrli Road went up for sale and Moloney saw a chance to reach for something. So she bought the business, which is nestled in a residential part of Naperville, and life got better.
"It changed everything," she said. "Knowing people in the community, seeing them come and go, feeling excited each time I opened. I felt a part of something."
One of her regulars was Jonathan Kaden, who lived nearby with his family and started coming in when he was just a kid.
In 2010, he asked Moloney for a job, and she hired him. He developed a love and skill for making Dilly Bars, and that became his nickname: Jon "Dilly Bar" Kaden.
"Everyone loved him," Moloney said. "He was friends with everyone in the neighborhood. He just sparkled. But there was also a darker side that I didn't notice until the next year. That sparkle was gone."
Few knew of the young man's depression. It had gotten worse following the death of a friend. On July 29, 2011, a week after returning from a journalism camp at Ball State University, the 17-year-old stepped in front of a train and was killed.
Moloney and the entire community were in shock.
"High school kids flooded the store and covered the sidewalk with chalk messages about him," she recalled.
His "Dilly Bar" name tag was hung near the ceiling of the store, a silver metal angel attached. And Moloney took action.
She stocked the store with pamphlets about youth suicide prevention. She encouraged kids and families to start talking about the issue. By 2014, she launched an annual golf outing as a fundraiser for suicide prevention agencies. It was called the Dilly Bar Annual Golf Outing, and it happened every year until this year.
And there's a reason for that. Last November, Moloney was diagnosed with cancer in her bile ducts. It's not curable, and doctors estimated she had four to 16 months to live. They told her to get her affairs in order.
So she did. Her sister, Maureen Battista, came on as a co-owner of the Dairy Queen. And Moloney fought the cancer.
It's been almost a year and she's doing OK. As she puts it, "I'm living CAT scan to CAT scan."
But she was too weak to do the golf outing this year, and that weighs on her. She doesn't want to let Jonathan's memory or her youth suicide advocacy fade.
"Hopefully I'll be around next year and can get it going again," she said.
I hope so too. But in the meantime, perhaps a Dairy Queen ambassador can help.
Let's start with awareness. I spoke with Jonny Boucher, founder of Hope for the Day, a Chicago-based suicide prevention group.
He said the biggest key is to get people talking about youth suicide, to break down the barriers we have when it comes to mental health issues.
"People aren't talking about it enough," he said. "Technology is driving the way people communicate, and it's creating this fear of looking someone in the eyes and having a conversation."
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people between the ages of 15 and 34. There are an average of 121 Americans committing suicide each day.
"It's a very hard conversation for a lot of people to wrap their heads around," Boucher said. "Most often we only talk about it after a tragedy has occurred."
So let's start there. Talk to your kids about suicide. Encourage the schools your children attend to bring in organizations like Hope for the Day or others to get these conversations started. Make people feel comfortable about acknowledging that they're having problems and need help.
Jonathan's mother, Patti Shore Kaden, is six years removed from her son's death, and she still talks about it to anyone who will listen: "We want to keep Jonathan going. We just want to keep talking and talking about this. That's how you help."
Another way to help is to do what Moloney has been doing up until this year: raise money for suicide-prevention organizations. Donate. Support them. Volunteer.
Let's start helping. Let's start taking this issue seriously.
For Jonathan. For the abundantly kind Ms. Moloney, who is fighting a battle of her own. And for the young people out there who need help -- and need adults unafraid to bring tough topics out in the open.
(Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and a noted hypocrisy enthusiast. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @RexHuppke.)