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First Descents: Nonprofit Spotlight

First Descents: Nonprofit Spotlight

January 11, 2024 by Giving Assistant Editorial Team

With roughly 70,000 new diagnoses per year, cancer is the most aggressive, disease-related cause of death in young adults today.

Imagine for a moment what it must feel like to be in your prime and receive this particular kind of devastating news.

That’s what happened to Gabriel.

Because of his illness, Gabriel faced many challenges, including depression and low self-esteem, making it incredibly difficult for him to connect with his family and friends.

Having a way to express himself and join a community that knows just how he feels could be incredibly comforting. That’s why we’re excited to highlight First Descents.

What is First Descents?

First descents activities kayaking

First Descents (FD) is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides life-changing outdoor adventures for young adults (ages 18 – 39) impacted by cancer and other serious health conditions.

The ultimate goal of First Descents is to help increase self-esteem, body image, and self-compassion, as well as alleviate the alienation, depression, and fatigue often associated with experiences of the disease.

The mission of First Descents is to address the needs of one of the fastest-growing and most underserved age demographics in oncology by providing entirely free, life-changing outdoor adventures to young adults impacted by cancer and other serious health conditions.


People in First Descent

Since 2001, First Descents (FD) has been supporting the physical, mental, and emotional health of young adults living with and surviving cancer.

Inspired by his aunt’s successful battle against cancer, Brad Ludden, a professional kayaker and future CNN Hero Award Winner, founded FD in 2001 at just 18 years old.

Ludden acted upon a vision to build up FD as an outdoor adventure outlet that provides physical, mental, and emotional support for one of the most underserved age demographics in oncology: young adults living with and surviving cancer.

The inaugural adventure trip saw 10 cancer survivors brave the Colorado River aboard whitewater kayaks. By 2011, 27 outdoor programs were changing the lives of 283 people, a number that nearly doubled in the next year.

Nearly two decades of adventures later, First Descents shows no signs of slowing down.

Project Examples

First descent local indoor climbing

There’s an adventure for everyone.

From a single day of local indoor climbing to a week-long white water kayaking adventure, FD provides a variety of program types that meet the individual needs of participants, allowing individuals to get out on a program as soon as possible.

No previous adventuring experience? No problem!

1. Week-Long Programs

First Descents Adventures
First Descents Adventures

FD often welcomes first-timers into their community through multi-day outdoor programs that test participants’ limits, build friendships, and promote individual growth.

Programs are set in breathtakingly spectacular settings across the nation, and may include:

  • Kayaking through the Oregonian wilderness
  • Surfing the Outer Banks of North Carolina
  • Rafting Class 3 rapids on the Colorado River
  • Mountain biking in San Francisco’s backyard
  • Climbing adventures at Rocky Mountain National Park

2. Local Adventure Communities

First descents out living local communities

First-timers and FD alumni may join in on single day or multi-day outdoor adventures at a local level.

Currently, over 18 FD hubs in select cities (such as Pittsburgh, Detroit, Boston, New York City, and Phoenix) offer regional programming, monthly meetups, and events throughout the year.

3. International Adventure Programs

FD alumni are eligible to participate in the ultimate adventure experience (one that takes place across the globe) and introduces a select few to multi-sport pursuits in areas like:

  • Thailand (caving and rappelling)
  • The mountains of Patagonia (whitewater rafting class V rapids)
  • The Italian Alps (rock climbing and hiking)
  • Ireland (sea kayaking in between historic castle visits)
First Descents Hiking Adventures
First Descents Hiking Adventures

4. Healthcare Workers Program

FD partnered with Dunkin’ Joy in Childhood Foundation, The VF Foundation, and #StartSmall, to launch their first healthcare workers program called Heros Recharge.

This nationwide adventure-based trauma support program is a series of outdoor activities catered to healthcare professionals on the frontlines of COVID-19. These activities are designed to improve psychosocial health, nurture supportive peer relationships, process grief and loss, and better position healthcare workers to carry out their important work.

Since its launch in April of 2020, HERO RECHARGE has only continued to grow. With plans to raise over $5M in the next three years, the goal of HERO RECHARGE is to further increase their program offerings and make a greater impact across the country. 

By increasing the number of participants to well over 425, the number of programs offered has more than doubled in just one year. As a result, the program has made the following impact on healthcare professionals who participated:

  • 76% of participants experienced a decrease in anxiety 
  • 94% felt more connected to the healthcare community
  • 99% were willing to recommend FD to other healthcare professionals

FD has collaborated with the National Institutes of Health to research the effectiveness of HERO RECHARGE and has seen significant improvements in the psychosocial health of their participants. By prioritizing healthcare workers in need of trauma relief and support, FD has received more than 10,150 inquiries from healthcare workers and first responders across all 50 states in the last year.

Impact and Future Plans

FD’s figures now boast more than 1,500 unique experiences that take place annually, and the organization’s mission and goals only continue to evolve.

Focusing on young adults 18-39, FD provides life-changing outdoor adventures and peer community support for those living with multiple sclerosis. In fact, they recently released their 2021 live events!

FD also plans to expand some of their most recent initiatives:

  • With plans to administer 39 healthcare worker programs throughout the remainder of 2021, FD hopes to serve roughly 450 additional healthcare workers.
  • The launch of FD’s Prescribe Adventure campaign, which introduces FD to patients closer to the time of their diagnosis. Hundreds of healthcare professionals and partners are already enlisted.

Interest is high for what FD has to offer, but they can’t accommodate everybody, and there’s a waitlist!

The organization holds many fundraising events—from climbathons and marathons to annual balls—that help them grow and expand their reach.

First Descents Climbathons
First Descents Climbathons

How to Support First Descents

  1. Donate directly on the First Descents website.
  2. Shop and donate your cash back using Giving Assistant
  3. Become a First Descents Ambassador
  4. Volunteer as a photographer, medical volunteer, or general volunteer.

Giving Assistant members interested in supporting First Descents can choose what percentage of their cash back earnings to keep or donate to help make a difference.

What is Giving Assistant?

Giving Assistant helps online shoppers turn their everyday shopping into charitable giving.

Giving Assistant shoppers also get exclusive coupon codes to use at thousands of top online retailers, plus earn cash back they can use to donate automatically to the nonprofit of their choice.

Nonprofits who partner with Giving Assistant can reach their fundraising goals with ease by receiving these shopper donations. It’s a win-win for everyone!

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