On Sept. 21, the Matt Kjelland Memorial Foundation will host its third annual 5K run-walk and family one-mile walk. At 9 a.m. that Saturday morning, hundreds of people will gather at Alexandria City Park to remember the loss of a man who was gone too soon.
Matt Kjelland was 30 years old when he took his own life on Sept. 23, 2016. After being diagnosed with Lyme disease, he was struggling physically and mentally.
“Matt was very active. He loved basketball so much and he was always in the weight room,” Kjelland’s mother, Sue, said. “When he found out he had Lyme, it really took a toll on him. He lost about 80 pounds. A lot of things began to go south at the time, but we always thought he was okay.”
The family would spend time at their cabin on Medicine Lake in Park Rapids to get away from their hometown of Alexandria. The summer Matt was diagnosed with Lyme, he wasn't the only one who got bit.
“We would pull ticks off us all the time and watch for Lyme,” Matt’s dad, Mike, said. “Along with Matt, several others on that road became infected. I remember one of them was a pilot. He got it so bad he had to quit flying for a while.”
Symptoms include severe headaches, neck stiffness, arthritis with severe joint pain, swelling, loss of muscle tone and more. For Matt, it took him out of a lot of the things he loved.
“He was really struggling with it,” Sue said. “One of the things we learned when we were getting treated for Lyme is there’s a neurotoxin that’s released when you're infected. When it’s released, anxiety levels go up and depression is more common. If you already have those mental illnesses, it’s hard to carry Lyme on top of that.”
Matt graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead with a degree in exercise science. He was looking for a new job while he had Lyme. Meanwhile, his social life took a hit, and he missed having the ability to do the things he loved to do and the people he loved to do them with.
“We never had a problem with Matt in his life. Then one day the sheriff walked in and said that he died,” Mike said. “We couldn’t wrap our heads around it. I couldn’t say “mental illness” for the first year after it happened. We were just in so much shock.”
Like many families of the victims on suicide, the past isn’t always pretty to think about.
“In hindsight, I can see that there were some signs now,” Sue said. “That’s the worst feeling in the world as a parent. I think if you were to talk to anybody that knew Matt, they would say he never wanted to bother anybody else with his problems.”
The news hit the Kjelland family hard. Not only did Mike and Sue lose one of their sons, but it was just after Matt had received some good news.
“He was actually on his last treatment for Lyme,” Mike said. “He gained 40 pounds back and it looked like things were going to go back to normal for him. The neurotoxins released to his brain were still weighing on him. Each person that gets Lyme reacts differently from the next. Matt didn’t have a good reaction. For Lyme cases, the largest cause of death is suicide.”
Ready to run
At the funeral, his friends approached Mike and Sue with the idea of starting a memorial golf tournament.
“As the months went on, they couldn’t devote all of their time to set up a golf tournament. They have families and lives of their own,” Sue said. The golf tournament required a lot of organization, and they began looking at a run.
Matt’s friends wanted to do something that embodied his spirit. Mike and Sue created the Matt Kjelland Memorial Foundation. The money they raise is donated to the education and awareness of suicide prevention. The proceeds also go to military suicide organizations along with a scholarship in Matt’s name.
“Matt would run in triathlons and he ran cross country,” Mike said. “We thought the run was going to be a good way for people to come and remember him.”
Mike and Sue have learned what it takes to make a charity event a success with the help of other people around the community are gearing up for the third Matt Kjelland Memorial Foundation Event.
“It’s a really emotional day for a lot of people, including us,” Mike said. “But we love that people still want to come here and pay their respects to our son.”
“No matter where they’re at in life, all of Matt’s friends come back for this race,” Sue said. “It makes me really happy to see them and to be able to share memories with them again.”
This fall, a big-time guest has volunteered to make an appearance. Dick Beardsley, one of the fastest American marathon runners in history, is speaking at Alexandria Community and Technical College the Friday night before the race. On Saturday, Beardsley plans to run for a cause that has affected him as well.
In 2015, his 31-year-old son, a veteran of the war in Iraq, committed suicide.
“He speaks on a national level,” Mike said. “He does motivational speaking for big companies and large groups on a scale much larger than us. We lucked out and got him.”
Beardsley has overcome not only the passing of his son but also drug addiction and an arrest and probation. His talk is at 7 p.m. Sept. 20 at ATCC and is free to the public.
Mike and Sue continue to work to keep the Matt Kjelland Memorial Foundation alive.
“If we can help even one person, this whole thing is worth it,” Sue said. “We’ve talked with other parents who have been in this situation like us. There are places here in town to get the help you need. We just want to do our part.”