Former Joplin teen, inspiration for Leffen Center for Autism, dies in traffic crash

A former Joplin teen who was the inspiration behind what is now the Bill & Virginia Leffen Center for Autism will be remembered for that legacy after being fatally injured in a traffic crash on Thursday.

Jaxon Buerge, 16, was a young child whose family was seeking treatment for his autism disorder when they broached Freeman Health System several years ago about the possibility of providing such treatment in the Joplin area, said Paula Baker, president and CEO of the health system.

“Even though Jaxon’s life was short, he made an incredible impact in this world, and that legacy — that of the Leffen Center — is one very real example of his impact,” she said.

The traffic crash occurred Thursday morning in the westbound lanes of Interstate 70, about 10 miles east of Colby, Kansas, when the Buerge family vehicle was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer, according to the Kansas Highway Patrol. The patrol report does not indicate whether weather conditions contributed to the wreck, but minutes before the crash was reported, the Kansas Department of Transportation tweeted that portions of I-70 would be closing due to weather brought by Winter Storm Eboni, the Wichita Eagle reported.

Jaxon died of his injuries, while the remaining members of the Buerge family — Justin, 42, Trisha, 40, and Maxwell, 9 — all were taken to a local hospital with serious injuries, the highway patrol said. The report lists their current hometown as Overland Park, Kansas.

The family was instrumental in bringing autism treatment services to Joplin due to their experiences with Jaxon, who was on the autism spectrum. It was around 2005 or 2006, as Baker recalls, that mom Trisha Buerge approached her with an issue. She and Jaxon had to move temporarily to Ohio so that he could be treated at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Center for Autism, and she wondered why the Joplin area couldn’t offer anything comparable.

Baker, at that time, was CEO of the Ozark Center, the behavioral health branch of Freeman. The mother’s request “echoed over and over” in her mind, and Freeman responded by opening what was then the Ozark Center for Autism in 2007.

Today, the center offers a variety of services including evaluations, a day treatment preschool program, special education center, social skills groups, outpatient training, nutrition services, speech and language therapy, case management and advocacy, parent/caregiver education and consultation with local schools. Baker said the center has treated hundreds of local children and adults who are on the autism spectrum, with some families driving up to an hour each day to take part in its services.

“The Leffen Center for Autism is cutting-edge treatment for autism; it’s the only program of its caliber in the entire region,” she said. “The Buerge family was right there, working with us to get that program up and going, and they’ve never stopped. They played a crucial role in championing the rights and opportunities of all individuals on the autism spectrum.”

Baker said the center’s employees and others within the Freeman workplace who knew the family are mourning the loss of Jaxon.

“Jaxon was an exceptional child and an exceptional young man,” she said. “He loved people, loved life, loved his family, and he was a joy to be around. It’s a huge loss, and we’re all deeply saddened. He will be missed greatly.”

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