July-August 2014
Volume 93 - Number 4

Find Your Way by the Star of the North

Development of a National TMJ Implant Registry and Repository - NICDR's TIRR

The Thought That Counts

Golden: Recognizing the MDA's 25-Year Members and Retirees


The Thought That Counts

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 small way.

“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.

Wish List

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 Plaza.

“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.

Ken 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. Louis County. 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.


Dr. Larson may be contacted at:
Kenneth Larson, D.D.S.
President, Northern Lights Foundation

P.O. Box 16689
Duluth, MN 55816
(218) 740-3045, or klars2000@aol.com - or –www.northernlightsfoundation.com

Copyright 2007. Minnesota Dental Association
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