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One step at a time: First Descents’ outdoor adventure programme

Special Interest Programme / Partner story

Photo credit: First Descents 

When Brad Ludden, a professional kayaker, began taking his aunt on kayaking trips when he was 12, he noticed how the activity managed to keep her spirits up despite her cancer diagnosis.  

Watching her come alive while in the water, he says he “saw a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence being built, and a light went off”. The idea that came to him was: “if this is working for her, it could probably work for a lot of other people too”.  

The moment proved pivotal, as it inspired Brad to begin offering kayaking lessons to young adults diagnosed with cancer in his local community. In 2001, Brad decided to take the initiative a step further and founded the charitable not-for-profit organisation First Descents, an outdoor adventure programme based in Denver, Colorado, the US, for young adults impacted by serious health conditions including cancer and multiple sclerosis. 

Today, the organisation has achieved positive and lasting impacts on the lives of patients, caregivers, and healthcare workers, according to two studies by researchers from the University of Michigan and the Keck Graduate Institute. Now partnering with over 530 medical centres, First Descents provides its outdoor ‘adventure-based healing’ programmes to young adults aged 18-39 years old who are living with serious health conditions, free of charge.  

In the year 2022 alone, First Descents hosted 39 programmes to serve 459 young adult participants; and over their 22 years of activity, it has provided more than 10,000 experiences to patients, caregivers, and healthcare workers. These adventures have included whitewater kayaking, surfing, rock climbing, hiking, and mountain biking.  

One participant, Latanya Thornhill, a cancer survivor, who rappelled down the near-vertical bedrock of sandstone cliffs in Moab, Utah, the US, said that it was about finishing the climb despite encountering adversity and being afraid of the drop.  

“I felt really proud,” says Latanya, who spoke about her experience on Good Morning America, one of the most watched morning TV shows in the United States. “I’m still in shock that I actually completed it, because a lot of times I was really scared.” However, she was encouraged by something one of the guides working with First Descents said. “He said something really important,” says Latanya. “He said it’s not always about getting to the top, it’s just, you know, taking them one step at a time.” 

According to another participant, “it’s about truly knowing in those hard moments that you’re not alone, to find the courage to take risks. First Descents gave us the opportunity to let ourselves be vulnerable, take risks, and choose to face it head on.” 

Looking to the future, First Descents is planning more amazing adventures in Oregon, California, Utah, and Colorado, to name a few. First Descents is also working to expand equitable access to psychosocial support to young adult patients, caregivers, and healthcare workers, as well as reaching more people living with multiple sclerosis. To learn more about First Descents, watch its heartwarming segment on Good Morning America here.  

This grant falls under Oak Foundation’s Special Interest Programme, which covers a wide range of fields, including environment, health, humanitarian relief, education, and the arts. You can find out more about the programme and its strategy by clicking here. You can also learn more about First Descents by visiting its website here