In October 2003, I was part of a team from City Year that organized the service project for the Outdoor Industry Association convention in Vail, Colorado. At the banquet afterwards, I sat captivated as I listened to the amazing story told by our young keynote speaker. He had done more selfless acts in his 22 years on this earth than most people do in a lifetime. Being only 23 myself and doing some good of my own, I felt I had a right to feel shared pride with him. After his presentation, I waited for the crowd that swarmed him to settle. I was one of the last people to approach him in the banquet hall and wanted only to congratulate him for his success in the non-profit world and tell him how great it is to see a 20something contributing to society and using his talents for good. That short congratulatory message turned into a 3 hour conversation, which later turned into a friendship.
At age 18, Brad Ludden started a kayak camp in Colorado for young adults with cancer. First Descents has since grown to include surfing and rock climbing and now has programs all over the United States and even has a few in Central and South America (for more information on First Descents and to find out how to get involved, visit http://www.firstdescents.org). Back in 2003, I thought the camp was a phenomenal idea and sounded like an absolute blast. My friendship with Brad was, of course, separate from his endeavors in the cancer world, but I followed the happenings of First Descents closely. I had no idea then how it would later change my life.
When I first found out that I had cancer, Brad was the first person I called outside my own family. We had not spoken in over 4 years, but he was as warm and supportive as ever. He quickly connected me to a number of invaluable resources and, in the months that followed, despite his busy schedule, continued to be a source of support for me himself as I navigated my way through the chaos we commonly refer to as treatment. He said that, without question, I was going to First Descents this summer. I was ecstatic.
I just got back from the week-long FD program in Moab, Utah. Yes, climbing and rappelling with such a breathtaking backdrop would have been enough to justify the smile that has not left my face since the trip. And yes, we ran through sprinklers and played Twister and did yoga in the park and sat in the hot tub every night and did karaoke in our lodge. We laughed as a group more than I’ve laughed with any group of people in a really long time. We sang in the van and around the camp fire and on the rock… we pretty much sang 90s hits everywhere you can imagine. We gave creepy hugs and told jokes and pulled pranks and shared stories. All of that was great, but none of it compares to the normalcy I felt for the first time since my diagnosis. Everyone there understood. Everyone there had a scar and a memory. And that was our normal.
A weight has been lifted from my shoulders, and a big, giant THANK YOU goes out to Brad and everyone else that has helped First Descents stay alive.