Summer camp memories will stick with kids long after they dis-em-bunk for home.

Twin sisters Lily and Sam Provost, 13, of Milton, have attended DREAM summer camp for the past five years. Sam recalled some of her favorite memories swimming in the pond, jumping off the dock with friends and sleeping in the cabins. Lily shared a love for swimming on hot, humid days but she also learned something new — how to burn a s’more.

DREAM, which stands for Directing through Recreation, Education, Adventure and Mentoring, is a Vermont-based nonprofit aimed at providing free programming for kids in low-income housing communities. The program provides afterschool and overnight camps, mentoring and college preparation.

Bridging the opportunity gap and preventing summer slide are core goals for the nonprofit, which argues that the opportunity gap is a root cause of why almost half of low-income children grow into low-income adults.

According to Adventure Director Eliza Kuchuk, a slide in academic abilities and soft skills, like relationship- and confidence-building, can happen to anyone during the summer “but is more likely to affect kids living in low-income housing.”

“Part of what DREAM strives to do is close the opportunity gap,” said Kuchuk. “Some experiences aren’t always accessible for people in low-income housing.”

In 1999, Americorps member Kathryn Ross partnered with some student volunteers at Dartmouth College to organize afterschool programming for close to 100 kids living in a local Section 8 housing development. Soon after, the student-turned-founders began DREAM, a nonprofit offering afterschool, day camp and overnight camp programs free of charge to children living in low-income housing communities year-round.

For more than 20 years, DREAM has partnered with communities in Vermont and a couple other large cities to offer programming across the state, and in cities Philadelphia and Boston.

DREAM offers two different summer programs: an enrichment day camp geared toward preventing the summer slide that takes place within communities, and an overnight camp focusing on soft skills, such as confidence-building and social emotional support in East Fairfield.

Kuchuk explained counselors “sneakily” weave in learning components with some of the fun camp activities — lanyard-braiding, robotics, skits around the campfire, making s’mores.

The rustic setting also offers kids a change of pace and scenery, something they might not have access to if the camp weren’t free.

“It is so important to get out of our homes, into the fresh air, to connect in a way that is removed from society,” said Kuchuk, even if that means just going for a walk outside.

With how fast-paced society runs, she sees kids “bustling from one thing to the next” and feeling even greater pressure during the pandemic.

“Everyone is screen fatigued,” she said.

While Kuchuk didn’t attend summer camp as a kid, she has spent most of her life outdoors and sees outdoor education as an opportunity to which all children should have access.

“It’s been really great to have the opportunity to help,” she said. “It’s been really magical to be part of camp and campers experience.”

DREAM employs Americorps members and is always excited to welcome new counselors.

Haley Thomson, a student at the University of Vermont, worked at the summer camp last year even though much of the programming switched to virtual.

“Along with having fun being a counselor for the kids, I also got to serve with, and became friends with, some wonderful people from all over the world,” Thomson said.

While plans for last summer pivoted online due to COVID-19, Kuchuk is cautiously optimistic that this summer, kids will have the chance to sleep in cabins, swim in Metcalf Pond and roast — or burn — s’mores around campfires together.

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