Dr. Ken Larson tried to hold back
the tears as he handed a check to Vanessa Willoughby and Michael Durfee last
April at his dental office in Duluth.
He was unsuccessful.
Their child, Michael Martin
Durfee, had been born with a hole in his heart, and had undergone open heart
surgery in March of 2007 to repair it. Needless to say, the bills for the
procedure and continuing care of the young child had not been cheap.
Dr. Larson knew the $2,000 check
would only make a small dent in the mounting medical expenses. What he
discovered, however, was that Michael’s parents saw with appreciation the
simple fact that someone, someone who did not even know who they were, was
willing to help them out. What Dr. Larson initially saw as a small start toward
a big dream brought him the understanding that, immediately in little Michael’s
case, but resonant in the underlying philosophy of a new organization, the
thought was much bigger than any monetary amount.
Real World, Real Time
Some people start foundations as a
way to “increase their profile” or to receive praise from others. For Dr. Ken
Larson, the impetus was as real as the need. The loss of a baby in 1993 was the
beginning of a search that led Dr. Larson to think in terms of a continuing
connection to help others. It was “all about giving back,” he said, adding that
“Seeing firsthand how doing something good could really help others” was a
personal priority as well.
“Helping out” can be a tall order,
but that simple phrase is exactly what prompted Larson to start his charitable
organization, the Northern Lights Foundation: He wants to make a difference in
his corner of the world.
Incorporated in 2006, the Northern
Lights Foundation is a 501c3 non-profit organization. All of the work is done
by volunteers in order to maximize the money donated to the cause. Applicants
between the ages of birth and 18 years and diagnosed with life-threatening
conditions are referred by physicians, whereupon the Northern Lights Board
takes them under review.
The mission statement of the
Northern Lights Foundation is that it provides funds to families of, and grants
wishes to, children with life-threatening conditions. The money can be used to
help with medical costs, travel costs, or as needed by the family. The children must be referred to the foundation and determined to
be medically eligible by their physicians. In its turn, the Northern Lights
Foundation respects the privacy of the children and families served. Referrals
are kept strictly confidential.
Northern Lights finances its work
through individual contributions, corporate donations, foundation grants,
planned gifts, special events, and other donations. For 2007, Dr. Larson said,
the foundation has raised more than $8,000 as of this writing.
Upon giving out the first gift
back in April, it was his hope, and wish, that it might lead to other families
in need applying for the available monies, and for those looking to give, to
consider his charity. Along with Larson, the Northern Lights Foundation’s Board
of Directors includes Bob Morgan, Cathy Kates, Scott Lyons, Bobbie Lenz, Dr.
Rahul Aggarwal, Michelle Mike-Russell, Steve Overom, Susie Stockinger, and
Denny Telega. All of these participants are extremely involved in their local
communities, and, said Dr. Larson, each member feels honored to be part of the
foundation and what it is trying to accomplish.
A Legacy of Giving
While some people would have been
content making a nice donation to another charity, such as the Make-A-Wish
Foundation, Dr. Ken Larson felt his calling to do this kind of work came with a
deeper personal requirement, and some very specific directives, too. For one
thing, he discovered his direction had to be to do something for those “living
in his own backyard”. He wanted to make a difference in his own community.
Because Ken Larson had been
involved in charitable organizations for most of his life, taking it to the
next level and starting his own just made sense to him. The idea for the
Northern Lights Foundation had first entered his mind in 2000. It took thought,
planning, and work, but seven years later there he was, giving out the new
organization’s first check.
“Thank you from the bottom of my
heart,” Michael’s dad told Larson.
Those simple words were all it
took. The tears Dr. Larson shed that day were genuine, and he said later that
it felt really good to be able to help the young couple and their son in a
“It was probably the most
gratifying experience I have felt in some time,” Larson said. “This foundation
is not about me and what I want. Its concern is making a difference in Northern Minnesota. It is very important to us that those
who serve or give to the foundation have a chance to meet the people they have
helped. It can and should make the experience of helping as real as the
situation which brought the family to us.”
When people with big hearts work
together wonderful things can happen. Dr. Ken Larson truly has a big heart, and
one young boy in Duluth
has a healthy one thanks to organizations like the Northern Lights Foundation.
Dr. Larson said his goal is to
raise and distribute a minimum of $25,000 every year for children and their
families served by the Duluth
medical community, and it is the desire of the Board of Directors to be able to
respond to the wishes of children with life-threatening conditions in a way
that will meet or exceed their expectations. The Board, Dr. Larson continued,
would use a network of resources to help assist the children and their families
to make those wishes come true. A wish could be as simple as meeting someone
special to the child or as challenging as bringing a once-in-a-lifetime family
vacation within reach.
Of course, meeting a challenge can
be a very creative process. Along with raising money for his foundation, Ken
Larson has been able to get local Duluth
businesses to help with his cause. In October 2007, the Northern Lights
Foundation announced that several Duluth
hotels and Grandma’s Restaurants had donated more than $15,000 in room and
board. This will be used to help ease the burden of Northland families who are
receiving care from St. Mary’s Children’s Hospital.
“When families living far from the
area visit St. Mary’s Children’s Hospital for their child’s medical treatment,
the expenses for sleeping and eating away from home for many days can be
overwhelming,” Dr. Larson said.
A total of 90 room nights and 90
dinner packages have been donated so far. Participating hotels include The Edge
Resort & Waterpark, Holiday Inn & Suites Downtown Waterfront, The Inn
on Lake Superior, the Radisson Hotel Duluth-Harborview, The Sheraton Hotel,
StayInDuluth.com, and Suites at Waterfront
“I think everyone would agree that
a family from International Falls, for example, should not have to drive back
and forth every day, especially when they have enough to worry about regarding
their child’s health,” Larson said.
Larson would be the first to admit he wishes a foundation like this did not
have to exist. Wishes aside, reality demonstrates daily that his charity could
do a lot of good and impact many area families. The Minnesota Department of
Health reports that 12.4 percent of the birth-to-18 population in the state has
special health care needs, including life-threatening conditions. Slightly more
than 38,000 of these reside in St.
What this adds up to in the years to come is that Dr. Ken Larson will likely
shed more tears and spread even more joy.
Larson may be contacted at:P.O. Box 16689
Northern Lights Foundation
740-3045, or firstname.lastname@example.org - or –www.northernlightsfoundation.com