“Why are you on my deck without a life vest?”
Brian Luke tosses this question over his shoulder to an approaching young man, who is eager to take the next ride around Echo Lake on a sit-ski, before jumping into the water to help bring a young woman who just finished sit-skiing back to the deck. Luke has been in and out of the water all morning as a volunteer for DREAM Adaptive Recreation, helping their Summer Water Sports Program run smoothly.
From the lawn overlooking the lake, DREAM’s executive director Emily Bertino says that she’s never seen a group this upbeat and this dedicated to a mission. And to look at the volunteers, participants and family members scattered in and around the lake, tubing, paddleboarding, kayaking, and drying off in the sun, there’s a noticeable common denominator: everyone is smiling. The positive energy is palpable.
DREAM, which stands for Disabled Recreation Environmental Access Movement, was founded in 1985 by Flathead community members who wanted to make Northwest Montana’s unparalleled outdoor opportunities accessible to kids and adults with physical, cognitive, intellectual and developmental disabilities. DREAM initially focused on winter sports, acquiring adaptive snow skiing equipment so that people with disabilities could alpine ski at Whitefish Mountain Resort. This grew into a 10-week ski program and the renowned Backcountry Powder Camp.
In 2009, DREAM expanded to include adaptive summer water sports and paddleboard programs, as well as outdoor programs for veterans. This year’s summer watersports program at Echo Lake ran from July 11-14. The final day was dedicated to veterans.
Adaptability and expansion are at the core of the DREAM program. And, in many ways, the concepts are necessarily connected. In order to expand a program, one must make it accessible to more people. And in order to make it accessible to more people, one must add or create features that respond to a larger range of needs.
“DREAM participants are all different ages and have a very wide range of disabilities,” Bertino says. “And somebody in the world has thought of a machine for each one of them. Each participant can waterski, tube or paddleboard in the way that works best for them.”
She points out a set of paddleboards bobbing in the waves next to the deck. Some of the paddleboards have wheelchairs in the center for participants who are unable to stand up. Others feature outriggers extending from either side to keep the board centered and balanced. Some have both, and some have neither. The boards are just one example of DREAM’s diverse adaptive equipment.
“There’s something for everyone,” Bertino says, but she adds that the term “everyone” is not always as inclusive as it sounds. That’s why she and Julie Tickle, DREAM’s program coordinator, are hoping to expand programming in future years to reach ever-larger portions of the population.
“No matter how great DREAM is now, the truth is there’s always a need for more programs,” says Tickle, a former member of the U.S. Paralympics Committee who has worked in adaptive sports since 2007. “We want to develop cycling, mountain biking, fly-fishing programs.”
Both Bertino and Tickle know those kinds of programs don’t just appear overnight. “It’s a step-by-step process,” Tickle says as she helps a participant onto a tube. “And right now we’re just getting our feet wet, literally.”
Tickle is referring to the fact that DREAM has seen a complete turnover in management in the past six months; she and Bertino recently filled the program’s only two full-time positions. Tickle started in January, and Bertino began in late June.
Stepping up as executive director three weeks before DREAM’s biggest summer event might seem stressful and intimidating, but Bertino sees it differently. “It’s completely opened up my world,” she says. “You think you’ve had experiences, you think you’ve been part of a community, but this is that times 10. Or squared.”
Bertino’s personal journey since joining the program is representative of the transformations, both large and small, that she identifies as central to DREAM’s mission. The program’s official motto is “Building Confidence and Encouraging Independence, One Activity at a Time.”
Bertino recounts the story of the first time she took three DREAM participants out on paddleboards. “At first they were all too scared to enter the water,” she says. “Slowly they agreed to go out on the water, but those who could stand up didn’t want to.” She smiles as she remembers how, two hours later, a 14-year-old boy stood up and started paddling independently.
“And then,” she says, starting to tear up, “the next week his mother came up to me and told me that that experience gave him confidence to try new things the whole rest of the week. And that’s what it’s about. Little transformations that add up to much larger ones.”
What makes these transformations possible, whether over the course of a day or over the course of a season, are the DREAM participants, volunteers, community organizations and businesses, caregivers, and family.
Every single DREAM participant was able to attend the watersports program free of charge thanks to a grant from Weyerhaeuser. The lunch served on the deck of the lake house was courtesy of Glacier Bank. And the beautiful house itself, the verdant lawns sloping down to Echo Lake and the launch access are all private property that a gracious couple has turned over to DREAM for the duration of the summer program.
McKaynee Powell, 23, of Kalispell, who has participated in both DREAM’s winter and summer programs for seven years, has used the skills she’s honed through DREAM to compete in skiing and snowshoeing races. She has won 49 medals, all of which currently hang on her bedroom wall. Powell was also on Glacier High School’s basketball team, and her coach, Jenny Griswold, volunteered this summer.
Griswold is one of the program’s more than 100 annual volunteers, some of whom have been with the program since its inception more than 30 years ago.
“We just can’t keep the volunteers away,” Bertino says. “No one ever says no.”
Brian Luke and his wife Cheryl have been volunteering for three summers and two winters, and, Bertino says, “They come to everything.” DREAM participants are constantly coming up to him, joking with him, laughing with him, teasing him.
“We’re close with each other because I treat them like I treat everyone else,” Brian says. “And, as volunteers, we go through so much training. Before this event we spent hours sitting on the sit-ski, driving the boats, going on the tubes. We tried to experience it like they would, so we could better understand what they’ll be feeling out there on the water.”
In adapting sports equipment and making outdoor experiences more accessible, DREAM is not just providing opportunities for people with disabilities to redefine the way they interact with the world. They are also redefining the ways in which families can experience the outdoors together.
“DREAM has meant everything for our family,” Janet Espeseth says. Having been born and raised in Whitefish, she wanted her twin sons, Ty and Griffin, to be able to ski down Big Mountain the way she had as a child. “I tried taking them by myself,” she says, “but it was difficult. And then DREAM came along, and we got the right equipment, and suddenly it was possible for our whole family to ski together.”
She pauses and says, “My dream for my family came true.” The Espeseths have now been skiing together for 10 years.
In this way, DREAM breaks down the barriers that tend to reify themselves between people with disabilities and those without.
“Everything in this world is divided into little separate universes,” says Bertino. “If you don’t have someone with disabilities in your life, you don’t really think about it because things like houses and cars and sports gear are constructed for people without disabilities.”
“But what would happen,” she asks, “if we did the opposite, and built our communities around those who do have disabilities?”
This alternate vision of the world is not as radical as it may sound. Because, as Bertino points out, “It’s like anything else. You want your kids to have fun. You want your family to have fun.”
“We’re out here today showing people what’s possible,” Tickle says. And in so doing, DREAM is redefining possibility itself.