Dr. Kurt Hulse has a heart for children in pain, which is why he directs the La Crosse District Dental Society’s annual program to provide needy children with free dental care.
“I signed up because I believe in what it stands for,” the Onalaska dentist said of the Give Kids a Smile program.
“First of all, it’s for kids,” he said. “It’s speaking for those who don’t always have a voice.
“Second, I believe in the goal of prevention. Dentistry is prevention-based, and the longer I’ve been in it, the more I see the importance of that,” said the 50-year-old Hulse, who began practicing 23 years ago.
“It’s even more important these days, when you look at dentistry and health care issues trending for kids, such as obesity and diabetes — we are struggling with that,” he said.
“Sugar consumption rates and some of their eating habits are a problem that would be way out of control if not for these prevention programs,” said Hulse, who has directed Give Kids a Smile for nearly a decade.
Dr. Eva Dahl, an Onalaska endodontist, started the local program in 2003 when she was involved in the leadership of the Wisconsin Dental Association. It is part of the American Dental Society’s annual effort of the same name.
“I thought this was a great opportunity to spotlight a need,” Dahl said. “Sometimes it’s difficult to identify kids in need.”
The program has provided free dental care ranging from filling cavities to oral surgery for more than 1,000 Coulee Region children since its beginning.
Teachers, nurses and social workers refer children ages 5 to 17 who are not receiving regular check-ups, based on their eligibility for the free lunch program, Hulse said.
“They approach children and families and sign them up for pre-screening,” he said. “It’s effective because they have a very good idea of who’s in need.
“It’s still a challenge to break through some of the barriers,” he said. “The hardest part is making people believe the importance of it. Parents want to do the right thing, but there’s only so much they can do. This is a direct open door for dental care.”
About 30 area dentists will provide the free care at their offices on Feb. 7 to 83 children who had preliminary exams Jan. 3 at the Health Science Center in La Crosse.
The soft-spoken Hulse deflects credit from himself, saying, “All of the dentists I know are very generous and giving of their time, whether in their offices or at schools.
“This is set up for one day, but dentists who provide the care often follow up and take care of patients later. They do more than they are asked,” he said.
The program also fosters camaraderie among dentists, he said.
“When you’re in private practice, you don’t get to work very often with colleagues,” Hulse said. “That’s another nice benefit of this.”
Western Technical College dental assistant students volunteer to help with the program, Hulse said, adding, “It’s good for them because they get credit, and they’ve been very helpful.”
Dahl salutes Hulse and his wife, Jeanne, for their resolve in sustaining the program.
“He and his wife took it over from me,” Dahl said. “Jeanne is very involved. It’s a lot of work. I think they’ve taken over this activity as their way of giving back.
“It’s a real credit to Kurt that he has maintained this, because it’s often easy to get a big splash, and then it’s not as exciting,” she said.
Dahl, who remains involved in the program as one of the dentists who provides the care gratis, said, “It’s nice to be in a program where people who really need it get care.
“You could open your door and say you’re giving free dental care and you’d be busy, but this identifies those who really need it,” she said.
“Some children, you feel really sad for them. Some children in difficult family situations can’t even get a ride, so we’ve had to set up transportation,” Dahl said.
Dr. Erica Stanek, president of the La Crosse District Dental Society, said Hulse “definitely has a big heart for kids and wants to make sure the program goes ahead.”
Hulse credits his late father, Richard, who was a dentist in La Crosse for 49 years, for his own motivation.
“I’m lucky in that that gave me a good sense of where dentistry was and where it’s going,” he said.
“For me, it’s just part of realizing my place in the community. The state gives me a license to practice. I view that as a privilege, not an entitlement,” Hulse said.
He also cited the annual Mission of Mercy program, in which dentists from throughout the state converge in one spot to provide care for thousands of needy patients.
When the La Crosse Center hosted that program for two days in 2009, Hulse said, “I got there at 7 a.m., and there was a line from the door of the La Crosse Center to Riverside Park of people looking for diagnosis and treatment.”
Many of the 1,553 people who were treated by 900 volunteers, including dentists and staffers, at that event needed routine care, but some also received surgery, he said. The mission provided more than $800,000 worth of free dental care.
Hulse’s payback in the Give Kids A Smile project comes from knowing he has helped children.
“The program goes right to the heart of kids to get educated and take care of their teeth and know what it means,” Hulse said.
“I see kids who come back who have had care, and they come back with different expectations,” he said. “They have trust instead of fear.”