A welcoming lawn lined with towering trees overlooking Echo Lake near Bigfork is filled with families from all walks of life. Some are all adults while others have young children and everything in between – and all of them participate in DREAM Adaptive Recreation’s watersports week.
The organization’s annual week-long program allows everyone of all abilities to recreate on the water and enjoy what makes Montana summers special. While DREAM regularly hosts summer activities and training, Watersports Week is a great time for families to get together and feel the camaraderie with old friends and new friends.
“I think what’s really good about it [program]…does this one lend itself more to the family atmosphere,” said Julie Tickle, Executive Director of DREAM Adaptive. “We call it a ‘choose your own adventure’ day or week because there are so many different activities and so much space to accommodate families – it’s one of my favorite things is helping families to be able to recreate together.”
The Whitefish-based non-profit organization was established in 1985 with the goal of making outdoor recreation in the Flathead Valley more accessible to people with disabilities. Early on, DREAM acquired adaptive ski equipment and provided downhill skiing opportunities for people with disabilities on Big Mountain, which continues to be one of their most popular programs.
In 2009, DREAM expanded by adding summer adaptive recreation opportunities such as mountain biking and various water sports. The popular Water Sports Week, which offers unique opportunities for participants to try many motorized water sports as well as paddling, is in its 14th year.
THE PROGRAM is hosted by the Thompson family who donate their backyard on Echo Lake. The setting is simply idyllic, with the surrounding mountains and the peaceful lake below.
“It’s like a little oasis…everyone looks forward to it every year. We are truly grateful to the Thompson family,” Tickle said.
DREAM has its entire staff, many volunteers and various donations that come together to make it possible.
“It’s quite magical and I think the location sets the stage for that magic,” Tickle says. “Everyone is in a very good mood.”
During the week’s activities, DREAM offers many families the opportunity to try sports that they might never have had the opportunity to practice otherwise. DREAM provides adaptive equipment like adapted waterskiing, wakeboarding, tubing and pontoon boat rides to give attendees an experience that makes them smile from ear to ear. Adaptive sports equipment is extremely expensive and most families cannot afford it on their own.
For Maggie Camp and her son Spencer Yebra, DREAM Water Sports Week is the highlight of their summer. Spencer was an active kid and daredevil snowboarder growing up when a car accident left him with a traumatic brain injury at the age of 16. The accident left him with disabilities that make it difficult to do the activities he loves.
The family worked with an adaptive program in Missoula until the pandemic shut it down, then found DREAM Adaptive. Camp says the organization is making a huge difference for his son and giving him the chance to experience the thrill of doing these activities again.
“It just makes his day, interacting with everyone…” Camp said after Spencer had a run on the adaptive waterski. “He was the kid on the snowboard who was unstoppable… now he can kind of get some of that back. And he loves it.
“It’s a great organization and I think it really fills a huge void in the lives of some of these people. I appreciate it very much,” she added.
DEMAND for outdoor recreation continues to grow every year and Tickle says Watersports Week is filling up quickly – unfortunately they don’t have the staff or equipment to meet demand, but are working on the expansion to serve more families.
“We unfortunately had a waiting list for most of our programs this summer – they filled up very quickly,” she said. “So we’re working hard on fundraising so we can hire more staff and get more equipment. It’s definitely not a problem we like to have, we like to say yes!
Each year, DREAM’s water sports program is sponsored in part by a grant from Weyerhaeuser. This year Launch Watersports in Kalispell also sponsored the program by providing a free new Malibu boat and driver for the week. According to General Manager Sean Lujan, Launch Watersports changed hands a few years ago and they were looking to add more community involvement to their business.
Lujan has worked with people with disabilities and when he found out that DREAM was paying to rent boats for the program, he thought it was something Launch could support so the money could be used for more. other aspects of the program.
“It’s absolutely amazing…the pace is high and everyone is having a great time,” Lujan said last week between boat rides. “DREAM Adaptive got into this program and that’s why I’m so happy that we were able to do a small part of it and be able to participate with them.”
Initiates plans to stay involved with the nonprofit and hopes to help with fundraising in the fall and other opportunities in the future.
Programming throughout the year has been essential for DREAM and its many participants. Tickle says having the ability to recreate outdoors is essential for everyone’s physical and mental health and people with disabilities are no different. That’s why programs like Echo Lake Watersports Week are so important for DREAM to continue to deliver.
“People with disabilities are people like everyone else…” she said. “Our mission is to connect the dots for people and break down some barriers, to make it feel like it’s not that bad – that they can go out and recreate and get all the many benefits of doing it.”