How Having a Child With Down Syndrome Taught Us to Appreciate the Outdoors

By Yeti Apr 21, 2021
Ruby's diagnosis doesn’t define her, and it doesn’t have to define what we do as a family. Four ways Ruby has taught us to appreciate the outdoors.
How Having a Child With Down Syndrome Taught Us to Appreciate the Outdoors

words by Melody Forsyth

As I sat on the shuttle bus in Zion National Park in April 2015, I thought to myself, “I better soak up all this beautiful red rock and scenery, because I will probably never be able to enjoy this again.” That’s how I felt. I thought we wouldn’t have fun as a family again.

A few weeks prior to this, I received a phone call giving me the results of my prenatal testing. I had to ask the doctor to repeat what he said because I was in disbelief. He said that my test came back positive for Trisomy 21. “What’s that?" I asked.

“It’s Down syndrome”, he said.

My heart sank. As a nurse, I understood what this meant. I understood the potential for medical complications. I understood this meant having a child with a disability. I started sobbing. Why was this happening to me? How on earth could I take care of a child with medical problems when I could barely take care of the three children I already had? I work full-time nights, I’m tired all the time and I don’t have the strength. I cried. I ugly cried. I screamed. My children came up to see what was wrong, and I told them to leave me alone. I honestly felt that my life was over.

When I told my husband, we cried together. We honestly had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know anyone raising a child with Down syndrome. We knew having a child with special needs would bring changes to our family. However, we thought that it meant that we would be stuck at home all the time. We assumed that her medical needs would prevent us from being adventurous. We thought that our lives would revolve around our child’s disability. We really thought that this was what life had in store for us.

So, we had the grand notion of a last adventure together! We thought we would take the kids and visit Zion National Park and other areas in southern Utah and go have some fun before our daughter Ruby was born. We wanted to give the kids one last vacation. At least, that’s what we thought at the time. At the hotel one morning, we were at breakfast when I saw a family with a child in a wheelchair. They were planning to have a fun day in the national park just like us. As I watched them, I realized that if they were out having fun in the park and enjoying the outdoors while having a child with a disability, we could too. It was all about our mindset and determination.

After experiencing Zion National Park and having fun on many hikes with my children, I was determined to continue the adventure. We made a goal to visit all the national parks with all our children, including our daughter Ruby, who was born a few months later with Down syndrome. When Ruby was 9 months old, we took her to Yellowstone National Park. I put her in the cheapest hiking backpack I could find, threw her on my back and had the most amazing feeling come over me. I was hooked.


Our beginning goal was simple. We wanted to visit all the national parks in Utah. We hoped to do a few hikes or maybe visit a viewpoint. We didn’t have any big expectations. However, with each new national park, I realized that Ruby developed more strength and skills. She wasn’t afraid to push her own boundaries. She just went for everything. Once she learned to walk, we couldn’t stop her. We thought, “why not trying something other than hiking?” Let’s see how she does.

So we would try a new outdoor activity, and she would love it. We would travel longer distances, and she would be fine in the car and cope well with the travel. I learned that her disability wasn’t limiting her, we were.

We were letting her diagnosis limit what we tried to do. We have since changed our mindset. Now, we just want to get out and try it all. Why not try rappelling? Why not try skiing? We are trying all the things I thought we could never do as a family because I thought we couldn’t, not because she wasn’t capable.

Ruby taught me that we could try. Her diagnosis doesn’t define her, and it doesn’t have to define what we do as a family.  Here are four ways Ruby has taught us to appreciate the outdoors.

1. We notice the little things.

Ruby loves to touch everything. She will stop in the middle of a trail and touch the dirt or find a stick and play with the rocks. She touches the large stones and the texture on the trees. We have learned to slow down and look around us more. It isn’t always about the destination. It’s about the little things along the way. We have learned that time spent in the outdoors is more important than what you actually do in the outdoors. An easy neighborhood hike is just as important as summiting a mountain.


2. We don’t set limits on ourselves.

Ruby doesn’t know she has Down syndrome. This means that she doesn’t have the preconceived notions that society has about someone with Down syndrome. If she wants to do something, she goes for it. Even if it's hard or challenging, she will try. Of course, sometimes she needs help. She will stick out her hand and look to her parents or siblings because they are always ready to help. Whenever I catch myself thinking I can’t do something, I always think of Ruby and quickly change my thoughts. Ruby learned to ski this winter and that's a prime example of not setting limits on what we can do! 


3. Goals can bring your family closer together.

It seemed like a simple goal. We were just going to visit some national parks. But it became much more than that. We work together as we pack for six people for a road trip. We share a small space in the car and in a hotel whenever we travel. The boys love doing the Junior Ranger Program, so they earn a junior ranger badge in every park. We love getting a stamp in our national parks passport, and we all have our own. We get a magnet for the fridge from each place we visit. We take a picture by the park sign. We sing a hymn together in the park when we are by ourselves on a trail. We plan with the children which parks we are going to visit next. This goal has turned into much more. We have lasting memories in these parks. We have disasters and triumphs to talk about. We have seen many sunsets and starry skies together in these parks. (Not too many sunrises because we have a hard time waking up early!)  All of this has brought us closer together as a family. We have created lasting memories that I know my children will cherish. We are united, and we all have the same purpose of showing the world that Ruby can do amazing things.


4. There is healing in the outdoors.

We thought we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the outdoors once Ruby came along, and we were wrong. We went to the outdoors to escape our problems, and we ended up finding answers. We found clarity and vision for what our lives could be. We were empowered to do conquer fears, and we were successful. We learned to accept and love Ruby’s diagnosis. Now the outdoors is a way of life for us because of how we feel when we are there.

We hope we can encourage more families, especially those with special needs children, to get outdoors. If I hadn’t seen that family with a child in a wheelchair, I don’t know if we would be where we are today. Sharing our beautiful children in the outdoors will give other parents and families encouragement to do the same.

To learn more about Melody and her quest to experience the outdoors, visit her IG profile @downwithadventure