First Day of School : Ready, Lucky & Happy

The first day of school was this date on a calendar that I thought I was looking forward to for three months. It turns out that after a summer of magic, vacations, adventures and easier kids than in previous years, the long-awaited date snuck up on me and turned out to be a little bittersweet.

We were ready physically -- we toured the school and prepped Zach and Addie for new teachers and a new bus number; we got some new clothes to handle summertime growth spurts.

And my Momma Heart was so sad to see them go. But they were so ready. Both of them were 10 times as confident this year as just 365 days ago. They didn’t have any fear or nervousness in their eyes and they were just so, so excited.

I love the first day of school photos I see from all of my friends. The longer we’re here, the bigger difference I can see in their kiddos and in ours. I love capturing their excitement and their silly and very big personalities in this little moment of pause as we celebrate another new chapter.

Addison begins second grade with a love for reading, art, outdoors and adventure. She’s always curious about geography and nature and is much less intimidated by new challenges. I hear stories of her tying other kids’ shoes at recess and sitting next to a new kid at school and I feel so proud.

Zachary is starting third grade with tons more independence, determination and confidence. I love the way he brings joy to others and how quickly he seems to be making new friends this year.

I can’t wait to see this chapter unfold and to see the differences I’m sure there will be between now and one year from now. Enjoy these peeks at our goofy kiddos on a very exciting first day of school.

Wendy Zook Photography | First day of school photos
Wendy Zook Photography | First day of school photos
Wendy Zook Photography | First day of school photos
Wendy Zook Photography | First day of school photos
Wendy Zook Photography | First day of school photos
Wendy Zook Photography | First day of school photos
Wendy Zook Photography | First day of school photos
Wendy Zook Photography | First day of school photos
Wendy Zook Photography | First day of school photos
Wendy Zook Photography | First day of school photos
Wendy Zook Photography | First day of school photos
Wendy Zook Photography | First day of school photos
Wendy Zook Photography | First day of school photos
Wendy Zook Photography | First day of school photos
Wendy Zook Photography | First day of school photos

Hiking the Appalachian Trail in Pieces: A Goal of Nature, Fitness, Serenity & Challenge

I’ve always loved the Appalachian Trail. As an outdoor-lover who grew up on the East Coast, the AT was this coveted, magical path that I understood from a very young age meant you could dream big and accomplish bigger than you dreamt. I always wanted to one day hike it and I even thought a thru-hike (walking it non-stop from one end to the other over the course of 4-6 months) was a possible and achievable goal for me.

Let’s pause for some fun facts.
The AT is the longest walking-only footpath in the world, with around 2,190 miles to tackle, climb and move along. It runs through 14 states (I’ve completed two of the smallest ones!) and is maintained almost exclusively by volunteers in different regions. While more than 3 million people hike a small section of the AT each year, there’s only about 3,000 thru-hikers that begin most years and most of them hike south from Georgia to Maine. Of the thru-hikers who begin the trek, only one-third of them will complete it, with some dropping out due to finances, injuries, mental fatigue, etc. Solo women hikers make up about one-third of all thru-hikers and the majority of thru-hikers are in their 20s.

And now back to me.
Despite years of dreaming of this trail, I never put a foot on the ground until this last year. My AT section-hiking journey (piecing the entire length of the trail together in little sections over the course of years) began with a “joke” among two friends one night. We had heard about the Maryland / Four-State Challenge, in which you walk from the Pennsylvania/Maryland line to the West Virginia/Virginia line below Harpers Ferry in one day (around 45 miles) and next thing you know, there were spreadsheets and training hikes and some Amazon hiking purchases.

The three of us started the Maryland Challenge day at 3am on June 1st. Stepping onto that trail and seeing those white blazes brought such joy for me. That day, I walked 36 miles. It was tough -- tougher than I thought it would be -- made even more mentally frustrating when you find out Maryland is one of the easiest states on the trail. That day definitely reignited my passion for the AT and I decided that night, with aching legs and a swollen knee and all the things going on in my mind, that I would hike all the miles of this trail in any way I could do it.

Since June 1, I’ve completed about 75 total miles on the AT. I obviously have a long way to go, but for only a few months and no overnight travels yet and staying completely local, I’m really happy with this so far. I’ve done about 20 miles into Virginia and the first eight or so miles of Pennsylvania, plus all of Maryland.

I’ve laughed a million times on this trail; I’ve cried quietly when I felt so moved by emotions and nature coming together; I’ve felt pain and lost pain; I’ve dreamt big dreams.

My husband helped me figure out how I could get in a decent amount of hiking and still maintain the kiddos’ schedules, his work schedule, photography and travel.

Next summer will see a one-week hiking adventure at the Maine end of things and then another week the following year in Georgia. In between, I’m dedicating one weekend each month to AT miles. My goal -- hold me to it -- is to complete all 2,190 miles in eight years.

I’d love motivation, company, ideas and travel buddies!

Happy Trails!

Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends
Wendy Zook Photography | Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, hiker, outdoor hiking, hiking trail, hiking with friends

Our Beach Adventure: A Salt-Air and Foamy Waves Summer Vacation to the Outer Banks

Last year, our family took a spontaneous and last-minute vacation to the Outer Banks along North Carolina’s coastline. It was a magical few days of relaxation, peace and so much laughter. We decided shortly after we returned last year that we wanted to try to make our time in the Outer Banks a yearly tradition.

This year, we made plans with two other families to join us in a gorgeous home one block from the beach in the village of Hatteras.

It seemed like the weeks and months stretched on agonizingly slow before it was finally time to be driving past those tall sand dunes again.

We spent seven beautiful days this August soaking in sunshine, surrounding ourselves with laughter, letting go of stress and work and worries and basking in the little joys like flying kites and digging sandcastles and sunsets and sunrises.

The other two families meshed so well with our family -- everything was so easy and fun. All of the kids got along great and the adults enjoyed time in the pool, at the pool table and around the table for game nights.

One of the families included the other half of our beloved nonprofit Friendship by LiliZach. We loved getting Lili and Zach together. And I loved photographing Lili and her parents for a very-special photo shoot, too (stay tuned for more on that in the near future!).

It was soothing, calming and so special. The kids are still talking about the “beach house adventure” and it is something we’re hoping works out again next year and years after, too.

That salt air was healing to a tired spirit. I’m grateful for those waves and those memories and I can’t wait to build more new ones with my family in the future.

Wendy Zook Photography_Outer Banks Family vacation, Outer Banks, beach time, family vacation, NC beach vacation, Friendship by Lilly Zach
Wendy Zook Photography_Outer Banks Family vacation, Outer Banks, beach time, family vacation, NC beach vacation, Friendship by Lilly Zach
Wendy Zook Photography_Outer Banks Family vacation, Outer Banks, beach time, family vacation, NC beach vacation, Friendship by Lilly Zach
Wendy Zook Photography_Outer Banks Family vacation, Outer Banks, beach time, family vacation, NC beach vacation, Friendship by Lilly Zach
Wendy Zook Photography_Outer Banks Family vacation, Outer Banks, beach time, family vacation, NC beach vacation, Friendship by Lilly Zach
Wendy Zook Photography_Outer Banks Family vacation, Outer Banks, beach time, family vacation, NC beach vacation, Friendship by Lilly Zach
Wendy Zook Photography_Outer Banks Family vacation, Outer Banks, beach time, family vacation, NC beach vacation, Friendship by Lilly Zach
Wendy Zook Photography_Outer Banks Family vacation, Outer Banks, beach time, family vacation, NC beach vacation, Friendship by Lilly Zach
Wendy Zook Photography_Outer Banks Family vacation, Outer Banks, beach time, family vacation, NC beach vacation, Friendship by Lilly Zach
Wendy Zook Photography_Outer Banks Family vacation, Outer Banks, beach time, family vacation, NC beach vacation, Friendship by Lilly Zach

Getting in our Groove: How We Prep for Back to School

It’s quite possibly the most bittersweet time of year for us here -- back to school. As much as I dread the summers as far as losing my guaranteed work hours and “me” time that’s been gifted to me these past two years, I always wind up loving our summertime magic so much and hate to see it end. This year was no exception. It flew by in a whirlwind of art camps, bowling, vacations, visits and adventures. It’s quite possibly been my favorite summer of even my life so far.

Addie couldn’t be more excited to return to school and start second grade while Zach seems fairly eager to check out third grade this year. Last year, Addie was all about reading and art, some science and math while Zach most loved recess (no surprise), lunch (definitely no surprise), P.E. (no surprises again!) and music.

Wendy Zook Photography, Down Syndrome, Down Syndrome Awareness, Down Syndrome Parent, Back to school, Special Needs parent, Special Needs school plan, inclusion

I don’t know if there’s any kid out there who can super-easily step directly from summertime pools and late mornings and laidback rules to full days of academics and lessons. My kids, especially Zachary, need some transition help for a more successful first few days of school. Here’s some things we do to help them out.

1. Talk about it, talk about it, talk about it.
We spend a lot of time in the last couple of weeks talking about going back to school, repeating our teachers’ names, counting down how many days til school starts and practicing our bus number. You’re likely to find some random Post-It notes around our house with all that info on it, too, just as visual reminders.

2. Tour Time!
Each year, we’ve requested a super-quick and informal meeting with Zach’s teacher and tour of his classroom in the week before school begins. It’s just another great reminder and visual cue for him to recognize the teacher, know where his cubby will be and take in the classroom without 24 other kids running around with a lot of noise. It’s become a part of our spring review meeting process, just planning for this tour.

Wendy Zook Photography, Down Syndrome, Down Syndrome Awareness, Down Syndrome Parent, Back to school, Special Needs parent, Special Needs school plan, inclusion

3. Get your stuff together
We get all of our school supplies in early August and pack it all up in backpacks (that we clean, too!) by mid-August. The kids do most of it themselves and take pride in their new supplies, recognize what they’ll be using. We also try on the backpacks a few times so they have practice with the weight on their back again. We also talk about lunches and snacks they would like (they’re going to help me make their lunches this year!), make sure their water bottles are clean, sturdy and washed up and ready. We practice using our water bottles and lunch boxes for a couple of weeks, too, so that we know they can open them and use them on their own.

Wendy Zook Photography, Down Syndrome, Down Syndrome Awareness, Down Syndrome Parent, Back to school, Special Needs parent, Special Needs school plan, inclusion

We’re wishing you and your kiddos a very happy and easy transition back to school! You’re all going to rock the 2019-2020 year!

Accepting My Boy: What a Community’s Inclusion of my Son with Special Needs Means for Him and Them

It’s a neighborhood concert night and everything is perfect -- the weather is comfortable and sunny; the music is so awesome; there are familiar faces everywhere from our little Lake Linganore community. Oh, and there is a group of boys playing football in a circle just below our chairs. There’s about eight of them and they’re all relatively the same age, splitting off into teams and tossing the ball back and forth to one another and pitching it into imaginary end zones. They’re all getting equal play time and they seem like they’ve been best friends forever.

But here’s the thing. There’s an extra chromosome in this group. There’s a boy wearing bright yellow shorts who belongs to me and my heart. And this Momma Heart is so happy to see Zachary right in there with the kids.

Wendy Zook Photography, Down Syndrome Awareness, Community Inclusion, Special Needs, Special Needs Parent, DS Advocacy, Down Syndrome Parent

Zachary is different -- but aren’t we all? -- and I have hoped against hope for moments and days like this. The ordinary moments that showcase how kids have the right idea -- they see innocence and belonging and sameness while we adults tend to search right for the differences. These kids saw a boy their age with a willingness to throw a football and for them it was a no-brainer to scoop him up into their game.

But these moments aren’t always guaranteed. There is no promise that this will keep happening in two years or five years. What I do know is that right now and right here, this community has wrapped its arms around my son and given him the ability to just be one of the kids and to fit in just fine.

Wendy Zook Photography, Down Syndrome Awareness, Community Inclusion, Special Needs, Special Needs Parent, DS Advocacy, Down Syndrome Parent

It’s at the neighborhood concerts and while passing time at the bus stop. It’s in the hallways of the school and out at daily recess. The support and inclusion of my son -- at other kids’ birthday parties and playdates and conversations -- this is the happy warmth in my heart that brings me such great joy. It’s why we chose a path of inclusion at school and why we include him as often as possible in all of our normal daily adventures and to-dos.

Wendy Zook Photography, Down Syndrome Awareness, Community Inclusion, Special Needs, Special Needs Parent, DS Advocacy, Down Syndrome Parent

I like to think that I wasn’t the only person who saw this scene at the neighborhood concert -- that kids who were on the fence saw how welcomed Zach was by other kiddos; that some parents felt pride for their children in the football game; that other parents had meaningful conversations with their kids that night or the next day; that parents of younger kids would start a journey of getting them to be the ones that play football on a summer night with a new friend who happens to have an extra chromosome.

I am so grateful for our neighborhood, our school, our community. I’m so grateful for football games and music and joy.