It’s been nearly eight years since a fall into the Little Tallapoosa River changed the course of Aimee Copeland’s life.
“It is wild how this happening to me has led me down the path that I needed to go down to live my best life, to find my fullest self,” Copeland, 32, said recently.
"This" was losing her left leg, right foot and both hands to a flesh-eating bacteria after she cut her leg falling in the river. If the accident hadn't happened, Copeland said, she'd probably be doing research or working in academia.
She wouldn’t be painting, dancing, winning gold medals in the Paralympic National Championships and learning to play the drums. She wouldn’t be running the Aimee Copeland Foundation.
And she definitely would not be a social worker. “Way too much responsibility,” she said.
But in the eight years since her accident, she’s done all that and more. And she wants to help others do the same.
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Bridging the gap
"I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order" — John Burroughs
Copeland has always loved nature, focusing on eco-psychology during her studies.
"The way I describe it is, it looks at the connection between human psyche and nature in order to cultivate healing and wholeness," she said. "But even that definition is a little flawed, because to say psyche and nature is creating a distinction between them. The psyche is nature as much as the leaves and the trees."
To help her clients and others, Copeland initially planned to create a park that was accessible to people with disabilities. “But that was before I really had lived with a disability for a long time,” she said.
Since then, she’s learned a couple of things. “One, if you have a place that is for people with disabilities, no one else will come. Then it’s just a bunch of people with disabilities, still secluded, still separated,” she said. And two, “If you go and build accessibility, it’s not nature anymore. Now it’s a built world.”
She realized people with disabilities who want to be in nature want to be in nature, not on a deck.
“So, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to bridge the gap between nature and accessibility. And the conclusion is, we’re going to have to use technology,” she said.
That might sound like a contradiction, but technology can have a place in nature. The foundation’s new initiative, All Terrain Georgia, was born.
"We are raising funds to purchase 10 all-terrain wheelchairs to be housed at various parks throughout Georgia," Copeland said. The wheelchairs will be available for a small or no fee.
These 10 chairs will cost about $150,000, she said. Copeland’s foundation will buy and maintain the chairs, “we just need the support of the state or private parks to house them.”
Chattahoochee Nature Center has already expressed interest in housing a couple of the chairs.
“Our mission is connecting people to nature, so we are constantly looking for ways to make sure that opportunity is available to everyone,” said DeAnn Fordham, senior director of development and marketing at the nature center.
“We have some ADA-approved pathways, but then, of course, we have about 2 1/2 miles of hiking trails on the property. So an all-terrain wheelchair will be an asset,” she added.
Since the foundation doesn’t have $150,000 in mad money lying around, it will hold a fundraiser April 18 with hopes of raising at least $60,000. The “Under the Stars” gala and silent auction is billed as “an elegant evening of entertainment, delicious food and drinks, and most of all, contributing to the mission of Aimee Copeland Foundation.”
» Aimee Copeland tells how she reclaimed her joy for life
CHARTing new territory
"One touch of nature makes the whole world kin." — William Shakespeare
Helping people — with and without physical disabilities — is the purpose of the Aimee Copeland Foundation.
“Our mission is to create outdoor recreation and mental health opportunities for people of all ages and abilities,” Copeland said. “We want to be very inclusive, and we want to create a community rather than sequestering people.”
To that end, Copeland hosts Eudamonium Wellness Retreats four times a year, bringing together those with and without disabilities “to connect with the Community, the Earth and the Self.” Eudamonium means “human flourishing,” and that’s the goal of each gathering.
Her December retreat was a bit smaller than usual because of the weather, Copeland said. But in attendance were about a dozen people, including a special education teacher from Fayette and “Aimee’s best friend” from Niagara Falls, Canada.
Amber Donnison, 32, first saw Copeland when she appeared on TV with Katie Couric. She reached out online, and the two became fast friends.
“I can tell you everything about Aimee,” said Donnison, who is on the autism spectrum and travels with her mother, Laurie Donnison. “I can tell you everything about Georgia. I’ve been here about 20 times to visit Aimee.”
“Amber is such a sweet girl,” said Copeland, who recently passed her state boards and is officially a licensed clinical social worker.
The last Eudamonium Wellness Retreat is scheduled for June 20. That doesn't mean the connection to community, earth and self will be broken, however.
Starting in the fall, Copeland will refocus these retreats to be quarterly workshops aimed at creating a “community for holistic and accessible recreation therapy,” or CHART. These 2 ½-hour workshops will move from Grant Park to Chattahoochee Nature Center, which is already working with Copeland on the all-terrain wheelchair initiative.
“She’s been up here before and done one-off sessions,” said Fordham, who also connected with Copeland after seeing her on television.
“She talked about her love of nature and how she wanted to do eco-therapy,” Fordham said, “and how she wanted people with disabilities to have access to nature.”
While CHARTing new territory with workshops, Copeland will take monthly “voyages” throughout the community.
“These are our long experiences, where folks with disabilities can have transportation assistance, and volunteers will be available at a different place in the community that is already available to people with disabilities,” Copeland said.
For example, one month might be a voyage to the YMCA, which has an accessible pool. Or Copeland will plan a voyage to Stone Mountain Park, which has accessible trails. How about a dance class? Yes, there are wheelchair dance classes in metro Atlanta.
“So, we will not be holding the dance classes, per se,” Copeland said. “We will simply be saying, ‘The voyage this month, if you’re interested, is a dance class on such and such day, and we’re all going.’ “
Copeland has found during her private practice that many people with disabilities become disconnected from their community. These voyages are meant to reconnect them by introducing people to programs and resources already available. She knows how important this is because she’s been through it.
Moving outside a given role
"And into the forest I go to lose my mind and find my soul" — John Muir
Before her accident, Copeland thought she would practice eco-therapy and become the kind of therapist who led groups on 10-mile hikes into the woods so they could “find themselves.”
“Then I wake up in a hospital bed with no hands or feet, and I’m like, ‘Well, those hikes in the woods probably aren’t going to happen,” she said. “But then the longer I laid there, watching this crappy TV, being around other people just laying in hospital beds, I realized this was the population that needed the most.”
That’s when Copeland had the idea to create accessible opportunities for people with disabilities.
“As I finished my degrees and had more time to really discover myself, I just started trying things. And it’s amazing. You never realize what talents you have until you give it a shot.”
Copeland gave swimming a shot, just for fun. “And then it turns out, I was very good at it.”
So good, in fact, that she won two gold medals at the 2018 Paralympic National Swimming Championships. It was that experience that led Copeland to try other creative outlets, like singing — "I am not a singer" — and playing drums — "I just picked up on it so quickly."
“When we’re children, we have a certain role. My role was always the smart one, you know? I excelled in school,” she said. “And that was what was always reflected to me. And so I just never tried anything.”
But now she is a very busy woman, trying new things and succeeding at many of them. That’s what she hopes people get from the monthly voyages.
“We’re just going to be finding things and sending folks there so they can see what’s already available in our community, which they could do every week,” she said.
If she’d stayed on her original path, Copeland said, she doubts she would ever have explored her creative side.
“I can say with a lot of certainty my life would not be as good.”
"Under the Stars" gala and silent auction
7-10 p.m. (VIP hour at 6 p.m.) Saturday, April 18. Chastain Horse Park: Special Event Facility, 4371 Powers Ferry Road NW, Atlanta. Tickets: eventbrite.com/e/under-the-stars-gala-silent-auction-tickets-87983485975
About the Author
Credit: Georgia Department of Economic Development
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com