Meet the Georgia woman, a double amputee, who helped bring all-terrain wheelchairs to 12 nearby state parks

Photo contributed by Aimee Copeland Foundation and Georgia Department of Natural Resources / Aimee Copeland Mercier, founder of Aimee Copeland Foundation, which helped bring all-terrain wheelchairs to state parks in partnership with Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Photo contributed by Aimee Copeland Foundation and Georgia Department of Natural Resources / Aimee Copeland Mercier, founder of Aimee Copeland Foundation, which helped bring all-terrain wheelchairs to state parks in partnership with Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

The first time Melanie Dunn climbed into an Action Trakchair, it felt as if she was running. A double amputee, she hadn't experienced that exhilarating sensation in 10 years.

Dunn had been at a wedding in Washington, D.C., and had changed out of her dress shoes into flip-flops following the ceremony. As she stepped into the taxi to take her back to the airport, she happened to step in a puddle. By the time she got home, her toe, which had sported a small cracked callous beforehand, resembled a tomato. She thought it was a spider bite, but 65 surgeries later, she had lost her right foot and left leg to necrotizing fasciitis due to a waterborne staph infection.

Dunn fell into a deep depression. The only thing that really brought her peace was feeling the sunshine -- which is how she describes Aimee Copeland Mercier.

In a strikingly similar twist of fate, years before Dunn's accident, Copeland Mercier had contracted necrotizing fasciitis following a ziplining accident, which ultimately claimed her right foot, left leg and both hands.

In an effort to lift Dunn's spirits, her mom suggested she reach out to Copeland Mercier. An avid outdoorswoman, both before and after her accident, Copeland Mercier was doing therapeutic work with other amputees, and Dunn had been following her story. As she lay confined to her hospital bed, Copeland Mercier had dreamed of creating a park for people with disabilities, but now wanted to give them the tools to explore the world.

"She realized people with disabilities don't want to have to go to one place, they want to go everywhere," says Dunn. "I'm a double amputee, and it's true -- I want to go where everybody else goes."

Over lunch with Dunn, Copeland Mercier described her vision for All Terrain Georgia. She had already founded the Aimee Copeland Foundation and was offering speaking engagements, psychotherapy, retreats, adaptive yoga, anything she could think of to connect with people and help those with disabilities find healing. Her goal was to raise enough money to purchase all-terrain wheelchairs for those with mobility issues to take on adventures through state parks.

After launching in 2017, this past November All Terrain Georgia began offering free chair rentals in 12 state parks within a two-hour radius of Atlanta, where Copeland Mercier is from.

"Being in the chair and being in the woods makes you feel closer to the universe, God or whatever higher power you believe in," says Dunn, now the foundation's assistant director. "It brings peace to your soul. When I lost my leg ... just going outside and feeling the sunshine on my face was so healing for me."

She and Copeland Mercier worked with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to earmark trails for the all-terrain chairs, and the DNR is working to expand trail access beyond the more than 50 miles already beta tested and approved. The trails have to be wide enough and can't have more than a 20-degree grade in order to accommodate the electric wheelchairs.

Since their debut in November, more than 100 people have signed up to take advantage of the opportunity the chairs provide.

"I love the look on people's faces when they take off for the first time," Dunn says. "They've contacted us from all over the country to talk to us about our model," she adds, referencing out-of-state visitors and other state park systems.

The next goal is to purchase a van so the chairs can be transported to nearby parks, expanding the possibilities to explore. After that, they have their sights set on Georgia's Gold Coast.

"There are so many people, Aimee and I included who love the beach and cannot get onto the beach in a regular wheelchair," Dunn says, explaining that even self-propelled wheelchairs with track tires are virtually impossible to maneuver due to the sand resistance. "God gave me this for a reason: to help other people. Nature is the most wonderful healing property there is, and it's free."

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If you go

All Terrain Georgia currently offers free ATV wheelchair rentals in these parks:

Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center

Cloudland Canyon State Park

Don Carter State Park

Etowah Indian Mounds

Fort Yargo State Park

Hard Labor Creek State Park

Newman Wetlands Center

Panola Mountain State Park

Pickett's Mill State Park

Red Top Mountain State Park

Smithgall Woods State Park

Sweetwater Creek State Park

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More info

Users must be 16 or older and complete a safety certification course before they can reserve a chair. Their registered "buddy" is required to be onsite with them at the time of the rental, and both have to present a valid ID in order to check out a chair, which must be reserved at least 72 hours in advance. Maps of the designated "ATC zones" should be printed off and brought with guests but should be available onsite. The chairs have an average battery life of six hours, and each is rented to one person per day, giving them plenty of time to explore. Each park houses one chair, but Dunn says there hasn't been a waiting list; though weekends are more popular. To learn more or sign up, visit allterraingeorgia.org.