Aimee Copeland expands outdoor fun to the disabled community

“It feels like a prayer I’ve been praying for years has been answered,” she said.

Last week, Copeland announced that a foundation bearing her name, in conjunction with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, is launching a program to allow the mobility-impaired to hit the trails in any of 11 state parks, using all-terrain wheelchairs. Use of the chairs is free to individuals with a documented disability and driver’s license. Riders must complete a safety certification program and be accompanied by a trained “buddy,” Copeland said.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Ben Oxley, who lives in the Stockbridge-McDonough area, tried out one of the chairs during the program’s unveiling at Panola Mountain State Park in Stockbridge.

“It was amazing, “said Oxley, 35, who has cerebral palsy. “I absolutely love being outdoors, and I’ve done everything from hunting to hiking. But it will be great to have something to make it a whole lot easier.”

Copeland came up with the idea for the project after a traumatic zip-lining accident in May 2012, from which she developed necrotizing fasciitis, a flesh-eating bacterial infection. Doctors saved her life, but she was left a quad amputee. Later, as she contemplated moving ahead, Copeland said she lamented that her disability might limit her hiking and the other outdoor activities she loves.

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“I started this out of my own inner passion. And to see how many people share my passion, not only people with disabilities, but everybody, is incredible,” Copeland said. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t have the outdoors as a space of healing and growth.”

To get the project off the ground, she created the Aimee Copeland Foundation and raised roughly $200,000 to buy 11 chairs. She also had to iron out the details with DNR, which oversees all state parks, to create the program she calls All-Terrain Georgia.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Copeland conducted a pilot program to work out any kinks. She also bought her track chair and personally rode the trails at the 11 state parks to ensure they would be safe.

On Nov. 4, Georgia Power announced it was buying a chair and donating it to Copeland’s foundation, giving her 12 chairs.

“What’s so impressive about (Copeland) is not so much what happened to her but how she’s recovered, her attitude, and what she’s been able to accomplish,” said Jacob Hawkins, communications manager at Georgia Power.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Despite all the time it took to develop the project, Copeland, 34, is still moving full-speed ahead with her life. Since her injury, she’s obtained multiple degrees and is a licensed clinical social worker, holistic psychotherapist, and paid public speaker. She owns and runs the Grant Park Counseling Group, which has about 10 clinicians.

She married last year, put her home on the market last week, and is moving from the Atlanta area to Asheville, North Carolina, where she has opened the Asheville Center for Inner Healing. Copeland said that her husband, Stephen Mercier, is going back to school so he can one day join her in her therapy work.

"A huge part of me is so grateful for the way my life has worked out. I would have never had this platform, this soapbox," she said. "But I’m still working through parts of it. I think grief is an ongoing process, and having a disability is not easy. I have my dark nights of the soul, my difficult moments, and I want other people with disabilities to know that’s normal."


Parks featuring the all-terrain track chairs:

· Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center, Mansfield

· Cloudland Canyon State Park, Trenton

· Don Carter State Park, Lake Lanier

· Etowah Indian Mounds Historic Site, Cartersville

· Fort Yargo State Park, Winder

· Hard Labor Creek State Park, Rutledge

· Panola Mountain State Park, Stockbridge

· Pickett’s Mill Battlefield Historic Site, Dallas

· Red Top Mountain State Park, Lake Allatoona

· Smithgall Woods State Park, Helen

· Sweetwater Creek State Park, Lithia Springs

Source: Aimee Copeland Foundation

For more information, go to allterraingeorgia.org and GaStateParks.org.