Outdoor lover. Down syndrome activist. Power mom.

Hiking with kids can be challenging enough, but hiking with a child with special needs can present an entirely different set of challenges. But that didn’t stop Melody Forsyth. We sat down with Melody to talk about the rewards of hiking with a special needs child and the obstacles they both needed to overcome.

L.L.Bean: What inspired you to become an advocate for getting special needs kids outside?

Melody: I actually didn’t start out trying to be an advocate. I just wanted to share our adventures and show how much fun we had with Ruby. But then my eyes were opened as I became a part of the down syndrome community and realized that there are people who don’t think people of different abilities have valuable lives. It then became a passion for us to show that the outdoors are for everyone, regardless of diagnosis, ability or background and we decided it was our mission to share this message with everyone. We believe that the outdoors are especially powerful for children and those of different abilities and hope we are sharing this through our adventures.

L.L.Bean: How has your experience outdoors brought your family closer together?

Melody: It’s unified us. We’ve experienced some of the most beautiful places the U.S. has to offer together as a family. We laugh, have inside jokes and sing silly songs. My kids know that they have my undivided attention when we are hiking because we seldomly have cell service. There aren’t any other distractions. My kids fight, complain and whine just like everyone else’s but there’s always a time on the trail where everybody is just happy and I hear the conversations that my children are having with each other. They are strengthening their relationship as siblings. It’s been amazing to watch them grow encourage and support Ruby. We are creating lasting memories and I hope we are creating a legacy that our children will continue.

L.L.Bean: What were some of the concerns taking a child with down syndrome on a hike?

Melody: At first, I was worried about the altitude and the mountains. Typically people with down syndrome have low muscle tone and therapists would tell us it’s going to be a long time till they can walk and they’re gonna to tire out more quickly. And then I watch her and she is so strong. She’s killing it trying to climb this ginormous rock. For some of the trails she can hike a mile on her own and I can see her thinking and trying to navigate rocks and uphill and downhill. It’s been amazing to watch her grow.

L.L.Bean: How has the outdoors inspired Ruby?

Melody: Ruby comes alive in the outdoors. I can tell she feels free and I watch her take it all in. Rocks, sand, dirt, leaves, trees, you name it she will touch it. It’s a way for her to explore her world. She babbles endlessly when she is in her pack and often grabs my head when she wants to show me something.

L.L.Bean: How has seeing Ruby out there inspired you and your kids?

Melody: Ruby just goes for it. When she wants to go, she goes. It has inspired all of us to just get out there and go for it. I personally use to think because I was plus-size that there were things that I just couldn’t do. Watching her made me realize I didn’t have to put these limitations on myself. Ruby doesn’t care what her diagnosis tells her about her body. She just loves to hike. She loves to run and explore. So when the children are complaining about a hike, we all look at Ruby and I say “look at Ruby conquering the trail. You guys can do it too!”

L.L.Bean: What are some of your personal experiences being outdoors?

Melody: I love going with other women and hiking. I love to see the strength that other women have to offer. I love to hear the sound of my shoes on the trail. I call it the “crunch” of the trail. It’s the best sound in the world. Hiking helps me cope with the craziness of working, raising four children and countless doctor appointments. I have a lot of stress. But when I get on the trail, I can immediately feel it go away. I have a happiness I can’t explain.

L.L.Bean: Any fun stories to share about being on hikes with your kids?

Melody: I laugh at the things Ruby has thrown out of her pack! Her glasses, a bonnet, a sippy cup, a hat, a hair bow. If the item is expensive enough or important we have had to turn around. And that’s not fun. My poor husband has had to climb down a rock slide to getRuby’s sippy cup. Ruby just laughed. And of course, the kids love it that I squeal everytime I see a snake.

L.L.Bean: Advice for other parents who want to take kids with special needs or other disabilities outdoors?

Melody: Start small. Don’t try to do too much when you are starting out. Go at whatever pace you all enjoy and feel comfortable with. Don’t compare yourself to others. It’s not a competition. Even if it’s only .5 mile, that’s awesome and you should feel proud of yourself.

L.L.Bean: You’ve set a goal of visiting all 59 national parks. How many parks have you been to so far and why is this goal important to you?

Melody: We have visited 24 national parks so far and 23 national monuments since Ruby has been born. This goal is important to us because for us, it all started with a national park. I want to teach my children that they don’t have to go far to see amazing beauty. It’s right here.

L.L.Bean: What’s your message to parents with kids with disabilities, people with disabilities or families who want to take their kids out on trails but don’t think they can?

Melody: You absolutely can! I know it’s hard and I know it takes time and planning, but it will change you. The more we get out with our children that are different, the more people will see that they are amazing and have lives worth living. The outdoors doesn’t judge them for their differences. It’s a space where they can grow and feel happiness and peace. There is a community of people that will support you and help you so you won’t be alone. The outdoors is for everyone and so they deserve to be out there just as much as anyone else.