Life with Gracie: How Aimee Copeland will use nature to help others with disabilities

After nearly dying from a flesh-eating bacterial infection, Copeland felt crushed. To save her life, doctors had amputated both her hands, her right foot and her entire right leg.

“I was feeling bad for myself, thinking I wouldn’t be able to go hiking in the woods or any of the other things I used to enjoy outdoors,” she remembered recently.

Then in the next moment, Copeland had a vision of all the people lying in their hospital beds, who just like her were resigned to living their lives in a wheelchair.

And that’s when it hit her.

“They were the people who really needed help getting outside,” she said.

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Before that fateful day in May 2012, when Copeland fell from a zip line, the outdoors had been her favorite place to be, whether hiking the Appalachian Trail, kayaking on the Chattahoochee River or rock-climbing at Sand Rock, Ala. She was just months away from earning a master’s degree in ecopsychology, the study of the inherent connection between the mind and nature, and graduating from the University of West Georgia in Carrollton.

From where she lay in the ICU, Copeland was pretty sure her dream was just that — a dream gone.

But as is always the case with Aimee Copeland, she thought, well, maybe.

Copeland logged onto her computer and soon discovered there were programs for disabled military veterans and camps for disabled children. But there was no place for people with disabilities to go enjoy nature and its healing benefits regardless of their age.

By the time the then-24-year-old was dismissed from the hospital on Aug. 22, 2012, she had essentially created the Aimee Copeland Foundation.

Over the next four years, she studied for a master’s of social work, traveling to Valdosta State University once a month. She graduated in May 2016, then used the summer months to study for the state licensing exam. She created a board of directors for her foundation and applied for nonprofit status.

Thanks to a donation, Copeland launched a website and video in early spring 2016 that tells her story and describes her mission. That gift allowed her to hold onto $25,000 in donated seed money for use later on.

On Sept. 9, her foundation will host its first event, Eudamonium: The Good Life Festival, at 3 p.m. in Atlanta’s Candler Park.

Eudamonium, which appropriately translates to “human flourishing,” will feature a 1-mile walk and roll, live band music, food trucks, a presentation from Aimee Copeland, and information on local health and wellness resources available to people with disabilities.

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All proceeds will be used to help build the foundation’s planned nature park and wellness center, where she hopes to empower people with disabilities to shape meaningful lives, and to find peace, strength and fulfillment — beyond what they may have imagined.

“We’re thrilled to host Eudamonium as our first event, as ‘human flourishing’ is the perfect way to sum up the foundation’s mission,” Copeland said. “Our hope is to raise awareness about ACF and the wellness center we’re building — while also bringing the community together in a fun and positive way.”

Meanwhile, she said the foundation will host an eight-week pilot program starting in March so people get a glimpse of what they have to look forward to once the center is built.

Individuals with disabilities can apply for and receive free coaching, horticulture, outdoor recreation, and other fitness activities one day a week. Five individuals will be selected for the program.

“We’ll do that until we have a physical center where we can provide those services all the time,” she said.

Copeland believes that when we’re in nature, it’s easier to connect with the world around us, avoid negative self-talk and focus on what is instead of what should be.

“Society tells us we need to be and look a certain way,” Copeland said. “Nature can teach us a lot about how to be content with the way things are.”

Copeland, who practices psychotherapy at the Heartwork Counseling Center and is accepting clients, has always enjoyed an appreciation for nature, but it wasn't until her accident that she learned how important it was to being whole.

“Society’s expectations of me don’t have to be the expectations I have of myself,” she said. “It’s important for all of us to know what’s right for us, what is our truth, what’s our story.”

It’s moments in nature that help us make that discovery. Aimee Copeland knows a lot about that.


Eudamonium: The Good Life Festival. 3 p.m. Sept. 9. $10 admission. Candler Park, 585 Candler Park Drive NE, Atlanta.

For counseling with Aimee Copeland: Heartwork Counseling Center, 990 Edgewood Ave., Atlanta. 404-658-1222, ext. 4.