University of Vermont

College of
Agriculture and Life Sciences

Department of Plant and Soil Science

In Avi's Memory

Hands-On Learning While Lending a Hand is Invaluable

Hillary Laggis
Hillary Laggis at Centennial Woods. Sally McCay photo.

Centennial Woods is usually a quiet refuge, a serene bit of forest hidden within busy Burlington. But on a cooling September afternoon, squeals and screeches bounce off the maple trees, rush down the brook and rise up through the pines. It's the sound of kids having fun in the woods. 

They're here with the DREAM Program (Directing through Recreation, Education, Adventure and Mentoring), which matches children from low-income families with college-aged students. 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.

"This is a pinecone, right?" one unsure scavenger asks. From around the bend in the stream: "I found a frog!" Then, "Look! Berries!" The cacophony only ceases – for a whole 10 seconds – when they stop to listen for birds, checking another find off the list.

Back up the trail, a dozen or so older DREAM kids, ages 13-18, learn survival skills – how to read a map, how to build a shelter and how to use a camp stove. Students from UVM's Outing Club assist.

The afternoon is, in part, the organizational work of Hillary Laggis, a DREAM mentor to five-year-old Rosie. Laggis is a junior majoring in public communications in UVM's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).

Laggis is quick to credit the help of many University of Vermont students for the DREAM activity, which was really the warm-up to a hike that the teens participated in the following weekend on Vermont's Long Trail. The Long Trail hike was part of the Outing Club's new Catamountain Classic – an attempt to hike the entirety of the Long Trail in groups in a single weekend.

But credit, she says, is especially due to her friend 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. 

"He created this plan, but he was never able to implement it," Laggis says. "After he passed away, there was so much sadness. All the groups he had been a part of were devastated." Drawn together to mourn, new alliances started to form. With the help of DREAM and the Outing Club, the Dewey House, led by Laggis, set to work to carry out his vision.

The weekend of Sept. 29 and 30, nearly 40 clubs, groups and campus organizations hiked Long Trail routes of varying difficulty, all together covering the entirety of the 272-mile Long Trail. The teenaged DREAM mentees and their mentors hiked a two-mile portion in southern Vermont, ending at Little Rock Pond. Kurganoff's family joined them. The event's registration fees were donated, in his memory, to a scholarship fund that will enable a DREAM youth to attend an Outward Bound course, a program Kurganoff completed when he was a young teen.

"In terms of who Avi was and what his objectives were in life, to give the scholarship to a DREAM student is well aligned," says Outing Club adviser John Abbott. Hosting the Catamountain Classic was long a goal of the Outing Club, he says, and organizing it in memory of Kurganoff was a perfect fit. "I can't give enough credit to Joe Kassay, Sara Stanton and Kathryn Martin," Abbott says, the students – friends of Kurganoff's – who helped on the Outing Club's end to organize the event and fundraiser.

Dreams realized

The project is one that helped Laggis, last July, earn a nationally competitive Pearson Prize for Higher Education, that honors students who have completed at least one year of college and have demonstrated community service leadership. 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 guidance, support and training from the Pearson Foundation around endeavors in community involvement and social entrepreneurship. 

It was Carrie Williams Howe, course instructor for "Rebuilding Vermont," the service-learning course Laggis took following the devastation of Tropical Storm Irene at the beginning of her sophomore year, who encouraged Laggis to apply. "Hillary quickly emerged as an engaged and passionate student in our class," Williams Howe says, adding that Laggis, a Hardwick, Vt. native, has "an ability to genuinely relate to people with whom she is volunteering, to really listen to them, and do amazing work without asking for any credit. You could tell she was doing her best work not for the grade, but in order to meaningfully contribute to recovery for her fellow Vermonters."

"The 'Rebuilding Vermont' class really opened a ton of doors for me, beyond just the Pearson Prize," Laggis says. "It was my favorite class I've ever taken at UVM. It was the first time I was actually able to apply everything I'd learned in the classroom immediately in the field." It led to another opportunity this past summer for Laggis: an internship using knowledge from her public communications major working for the Irene Recovery Office in Montpelier, an area of work she says she might like to explore after graduation.

In the meantime, she's using the resources available to her through the Pearson Foundation to make "Avi's Adventures" – bi-semester excursions to the woods – a sustainable program and a permanent collaboration between DREAM and the Outing Club. 

"It's really a mutually beneficial experience for everyone," she says. "The Outing Club gets to give back. DREAM gets to work with the Outing Club. And besides it being really exciting for our kids to do the outdoor adventure, they're directly benefiting from this scholarship fund."

Beyond national awards, Laggis can rejoice in meeting another goal: the sounds of adventure and exploration echoing around Centennial Woods are testament to Avi Kurganoff's dream realized.