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Hillary Laggis

DREAM program student mentor

Hillary Laggis

Centennial Woods is a serene bit of forest hidden within busy Burlington. But today, squeals and screeches bounce off the maple trees and rise up through the pines. It's the sound of kids having fun in the woods on a cooling September afternoon. The afternoon is, in part, the organizational work of UVM junior Hillary Laggis, student mentor for the DREAM program.

DREAM (Directing through Recreation, Education, Adventure and Mentoring) matches children from low-income families with a college-aged student. About 25 kids, ages 5 to 12, are on a scavenger hunt put together by their UVM mentors. It's loud, it's raucous and it's clearly a winning activity among the group.

Laggis is quick to credit the help of many UVM students for the day's activity, which is really the warm-up to a hike the teens will participate in the next weekend on Vermont's Long Trail, part of the Outing Club's first annual Catamountain Classic -- an attempt to hike the entirety of the 273-mile Long Trail in groups in a single weekend. But she gives true credit for the day to Avi Kurganoff, a UVM student who passed away in March 2012.

This effort to get underprivileged Burlington youth into the woods was the concept behind Kurganoff's impact plan, a project required of all members of UVM's Dewey House for Civic Engagement, the residential learning community dedicated to service where Laggis and Kurganoff met as first-year students. Drawn together to mourn their friend, Laggis and others set to work to carry out his vision.

National recognition

The project also helped Laggis earn a nationally competitive Pearson Prize. She was chosen as one of 20 winners, out of more than 20,000 applicants, who received $10,000 to help defray the cost of college, as well as support and training from the Pearson Foundation around endeavors in community involvement and social entrepreneurship.

It was Carrie Williams Howe, a service-learning course instructor who encouraged Laggis to apply. "Hillary quickly emerged as an engaged and passionate student in our class," Williams Howe says.

"[Carrie Williams Howe's] class really opened a ton of doors for me, beyond just the Pearson Prize," Laggis says. The course led to another opportunity this past summer for Laggis: an internship using knowledge from her public communications major working for the Hurricane Irene Recovery Office in Montpelier, an area of work she says she might like to explore after graduation.