South Dakota family keeps Jaxon Boomsma’s ‘smile alive’
“If you’ve never gone to a 7-year-old’s funeral …”
Where do you begin grasping the incomprehensible, grieving the unimaginable and struggling with, “Why?”
Jaxon Boomsma died April 14, 2017, as the result of a tractor-related incident at a relative’s farm. Not a day goes by that the smile of this little boy from Yankton, S.D., is not missed.
Mark Salvador, seated in the corner booth of a Sioux Falls diner popular with his Corteva AgriScience co-workers, recalled the shock he felt when an email containing news of Jaxon’s death hit his inbox.
“I remember seeing it …It just stopped me in my tracks … you’re trying to imagine what the family is going through.”
Almost five years later, Salvador worked to keep tears at bay. Twenty seconds passed before he was able to continue.
“The emotions come to the surface when we talk about it. It’s hard, but important,” said Salvador, “You think about farm safety, and you think about what it used to mean versus what it means after a life-changing event like that.”
Salvador is a co-worker and friend of Jaxon’s dad, Troy Boomsma, and one of many members of the community who have joined the Boomsma family in perpetuating the “Keep His Smile Alive” agricultural safety campaign.
For them safety is, and always will be, personal.
The Boomsma family lives in Yankton, a town of 15,000 across the Missouri River from Nebraska. Troy Boomsma is a territory manager with Pioneer Seeds/Corteva AgriScience. Troy and his wife Sarah, who runs a day care business, both grew up on farms, but are now typical suburban parents, with children involved heavily in school and sports. Jaiden is finishing her sophomore year at South Dakota State University, Callie will graduate Yankton High School in May, and Carter is finishing 8th grade.
The Boomsma farm, where Troy grew up, is home to some of the family’s fondest memories. It’s also the site of their most tragic day.
On Good Friday, 2017, Jaxon and Callie were at the farm. Troy, Sarah, Jaiden and Carter planned to join later in the weekend.
“Jaxon was with my dad all that day, helping him do stuff around the farm,” Troy said. “Dad was going to take him inside and then jump on the John Deere (4430), which happened to be cab-less, to finish some work. My dad is the kind of guy who always likes to be doing something. He is the hardest worker I know. He wanted to take Jaxon back to the house that day, but… Jaxon convinced him to let him ride with him.”
Jaxon fell from the tractor and was run over by the rear wheel, dying immediately.
“I know how hard it is to say no to a child, especially when it’s something they love to do, but we all have to learn to say ‘no,’” said Troy. “My dad loved taking the kids around the farm and creating memories with them. He had said ‘no’ a thousand times before and did everything he could to make the farm a safe and fun experience for the kids. Sadly, it only takes one time.”
Nationally, approximately one-fourth of tractor deaths each year are from runovers, according to Barbara Lee, Ph.D., director of the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety. These usually occur when an extra rider falls under the rear tractor wheel.
Tractor rides have an intrinsic appeal for children, said Lee. “But the well-intended activity of a child riding on the tractor with a parent or grandparent is extremely dangerous.”
“There seems to be a jokester in every family, and in our family that was Jaxon,” said Troy Boomsma. “He was a happy-go-lucky kid, never took things too serious.”
The youngest Boomsma loved the outdoors, hunting with his dad, picking dandelions and camping with his family. He especially loved spending time at his grandparents’ farm.
Jaxon was the No. 1 fan of his older siblings and their sports activities, and he also played football, soccer and baseball with his friends.
Kris Binde is a kindergarten teacher at Stewart Elementary School in Yankton and friend of the Boomsma family. She taught all four Boomsma children.
“Jaxon would play with anyone on the playground,” Binde said. “He’d ask kids to join his group, or maybe he’d wander away from his little circle of friends and do something with someone else. Just a good, kind kid. Always happy. He would always do whatever was asked of him, and do his best.”
Stewart school presents a “Keep His Smile Alive” award each year to a graduating fifth-grade student who exemplifies Jaxon’s qualities. The 2021 award ceremony was particularly special, as it was Jaxon’s class.
“I think sometimes people are afraid to talk about someone who passed away, especially a child,” Binde said. “But kids are just very direct and have many questions, which I think helped all of us deal with it, even if those questions were really difficult sometimes.”
The award plaque in the school hallway, along with a planted tree, memory stones around the tree, and an ornament on the school Christmas tree are just some of the visible ways Jaxon is remembered.
“I think all of those activities have helped bring us closer together and keep his smile alive,” Binde said. “We feel it’s important as kids come into the school that they at least feel like they knew Jaxon, even if they didn’t meet him in person.”
Some of Jaxon’s schoolwork hangs in a series of frames in the basement rec room of the Boomsma house, where Jaxon liked to play with toy farm equipment. Each contains a photo and a first-grader’s observations about life, from hunting to youth sports to farming. Jaxon’s hand-written lines flow like a haiku.
“When I am 50 years old I will be a farmer. I will have gray hair. I will have old clothes. I will have old boots.” ~Jaxon Boomsma
“I honestly don’t remember much about the first year after the accident,” Troy said. “I probably read 20 books about grief. Finally, I read the Bible.”
A passage that stands out for Troy is Romans 5: 3-5, “…We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
Faith, family, friends and the nature of Troy’s job helped him to move forward.
“As a territory manager I do a lot of traveling and I’m in front of a lot of people,” Troy said. “I feel it’s my job, working at Pioneer and being in the business I am in, to know the safety facts and the talking points, and to be able share that information and promote safety.”
Many of the customers who have experienced a loss feel comfortable sharing their stories with Troy.
“One guy lost his son in an ATV accident, there were a couple grain bin fatalities. When people first started reaching out to me I thought, ‘holy cow, lots of people have lost loved ones in accidents.’
“Some people shut down and aren’t able to talk about their losses, and that’s fine, I get that. I guess you could say it’s helped me to talk about it.”
Sarah appreciates that Troy is able to tell the family’s story.
“I don’t do a lot of the talking because I start crying,” Sarah said.
All the Boomsmas say the first year after losing Jaxon was a blur.
“I stepped away from God and I shouldn’t have, but I did,” Jaiden said. “Walking into church (at the funeral) and all you see is that tunnel vision of you walking your brother in and walking your brother out, that hit me hard and it was hard for me to go to church after that.”
Jaiden, who says she prays more than she ever has, said each family member grieved differently.
“I acted tough but I finally realized it is OK to be sad,” Jaiden said. “I took some psychology classes at college and wrote a paper about grieving siblings. You don’t realize how much a loss affects your daily life. You lived with this person for so many years, you helped them make dinner, you did so many things with them and to think about those little things in life you don’t get to do with them any more … you are going to have days that are bad, and there is nothing to do to prevent those days, you are going to be sad and it helps to realize that.”
“I still think farms are the best places to grow up,” he said.
But Troy said he doesn’t go as much as he used to.
“My dad, I had never seen him cry, you know? I’ve seen him cry many times now. It’s been tough … things have changed.”
The Boomsmas were humbled and grateful for the community support they received after losing Jaxon. They formed the Jaxon Boomsma Memorial Fund 501(c)(3) and began looking for ways to give back to Yankton, starting with the park behind their house, where they had spent many a summer evening. Fundraising enabled them to donate half the surface of a new basketball court in the park, as well as a drinking fountain and two benches carrying the “Jaxon Boomsma 23” logo. Why 23? It’s the number of Troy’s favorite basketball player, Michael Jordan, and it’s a number that has been worn by all the Boomsma children on their sports uniforms.
Then their attention turned to farm safety. The family decided to tell their story in order to prevent other families from going through what they have. They started by setting up the Jaxon Boomsma Memorial Fund, which supports 4H safety efforts, provides an agricultural scholarship to a high school senior each year, prints safety stickers in partnership with Pioneer, and engages in other activities. But the highest-profile safety initiative, by far, is the creation and publishing of a 30-page comic-style book titled, “Staying safe on the farm with Jaxon,” by Troy’s sister, Mary, with Jaiden, Callie and Carter.
“I looked for a book that parents could use to start a conversation with kids about farm safety and I couldn’t find one,” Troy said. “There were a lot of farm safety resources out there, but not a book.”
Mary had the story idea. She found a publisher and produced the first draft. The Boomsma children took an active role in the text and illustration development. The book features Jaxon taking the reader on a safety tour of the farm, pointing out hazards as he goes, and interacting with family members.
“The book is well done,” said Salvador, Troy Boomsma’s co-worker. “There is a ready-made conversation on every page. We give out hundreds to customers, and the feedback has been excellent.”
It was named one of 2020’s books of the year by the South Dakota Farm Bureau Federation Women’s Leadership Team. Nine thousand copies have been printed and distributed.
The Yankton cemetery where Jaxon rests is just a few blocks from the Boomsma house. Jaxon’s headstone is etched with photos of him with family, being silly, playing sports and having fun.
This particular July day is gray. Life-giving rain had fallen earlier, soaking area crops stressed by drought.
“I come here quite often with the dog,” Troy said. “A lot of times Sarah and I will walk up here together; sometimes I come myself. It’s good and bad, in a way, being so close. I like it because we get to spend time here. Some people might think it is too close. I don’t know. I like walking through here.”
Troy posted to his LinkedIn page a TED Talk featuring Nora McInerny, a Minnesotan whose insights on grief were shaped by the loss of a child, her dad, and her husband, all in a few short months. McInerny says we can’t (and shouldn’t want to) move on from grief as if it were an event we simply leave behind. Rather we move forward, and in doing so, we remember and honor the one we lost.
“I once read that the ideal journey of grief involves learning to live and grow from the loss rather than to simply stop grieving, and I completely agree,” Troy said. “It’s impossible to move on from someone who played such an important role in making you who you are. Jaxon will always be a special part of our family. Although there will be emotional days, we continue to move forward with him in our lives.
“Jaxon was always smiling and lived every day to the fullest, so we try to live that way in honor of him. Our faith and family has helped guide us through this difficult journey, and our hope is that by sharing our story we can help others.”
By: Scott Heiberger, National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety
Follow the “Keep His Smile Alive” campaign
The primary way of interacting with the Jaxon L. Boomsma Keep His Smile Alive Memorial is via Facebook. Information on the purchase of books can be requested (there is special pricing for large quantities) as well as other inquiries.
Keep Kids Away from Tractors campaign: Tractor-related incidents are the number one cause of death for children on farms. https://cultivatesafety.org/campaigns/tractors/
Cultivate Safety: The Cultivate Safety website provides easy access to agricultural safety information and resources for farmers, ranchers, supervisors and media. https://cultivatesafety.org