Do you know that feeling of exhilaration that washes over your body or the goose bumps that cover your arms when you accomplish a feat you thought was impossible? For me, it was the sense of accomplishment I felt when I ran my first half marathon (who me running 13.1 miles? Wow!). It reminds you that you can test your mind, body, and soul to defy challenges you believed to be impossible. For Brad Ludden, it is kayaking.  In kayaking, when a person successfully kayaks a river or section of river that has never been done before that is called a first descent. This term captures the excitement and sense of triumph you feel during that dark, daunting plunge into the unknown.


Brad Ludden

Brad Ludden intimately knows the power of a first descent. He was born in Wyoming and raised in Northwest Montana, where he explored the outdoors by hiking, camping, fishing, skiing, and kayaking with his family. Kayaking became his passion and he started to compete internationally when he was only 12 years old. By 18 he had kayaked in over 20 countries and experienced numerous first descents that taught him invaluable life lessons about personal growth, challenge, and community.KindApril3-4

During this time Brad discovered his calling and kayaking was only the beginning.  Brad’s aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer when he was 12 years old and he quickly learned that cancer patients were offered little support for the life changing emotional ramifications they battled everyday. He began volunteering at a local oncology program teaching participants how to kayak, and by 18 knew that his calling was to provide the liberating experience of a first descent to young people with cancer.

First Descents was founded in 2001 and is an organization that offers young adult cancer fighters and survivors a free outdoor adventure experience designed to empower them to climb, paddle and surf beyond their diagnosis, defy their cancer, reclaim their lives and connect with others doing the same.

“Cancer can rob a person of their trust in their bodies, confidence in themselves and lower their body image. It’s a two shot combo that attacks the physical and the mental,” said Brad. “The act of facing and overcoming a real challenge served up in nature can restore a lot of that damage.”

Brad continues, “It gets the survivor working WITH their body again and begins to reestablish that relationship. Because it’s in nature, there were no short cuts. Nature doesn’t care what your story is and treats everyone equally. That makes the accomplishment real and that makes the rewards greater. All of this leaves the person standing at the take out of the river, back on short after catching a wave or at the top of the climb a more whole and confident self.”

Building a nonprofit organization where all meals, accommodations, and programs activities are provided free of charge is not an easy feat. Brad encountered “too many obstacles to recount” when he founded the organization and many people around him did not think it was possible. He was a self-titled “broke kayaker with no college education” fighting to create an organization that did not make money, craft a business plan to define a mission and vision that would attract patients and investors, as well as, convince doctors that the program was safe and beneficial to allow their patients to participate in.

But knowing firsthand the needs of his aunt and so many others were going unmet, he persevered. In 2013, First Descents raised over $2 millions to fund 36 programs in 13 states and two countries (Indonesia and Chile) for 414 participants.

In 2014, Brad transitioned from Executive Director to more of an advisory role so that he can put more time and energy into attending the programs and doing the outreach that invigorates him. He does not have a typical day working with First Descents, and hopes to never know what that means. Right now he is taking care of his ailing mother and supporting his father who is her caretaker. “This has given me a new and profound understanding of what our participants and their families go through,” said Brad. He also tries to start his day outside in Montana; outdoor adventure helps to fuel his work and reestablishes what First Descents is all about.

First Descents is one organization benefiting from the sales of NY Times Bestseller Do the KIND Thing, a handbook for social entrepreneurs by Daniel Lubetzky, Founder and CEO of KIND Snacks. Prior to the book hitting shelves, KIND set out to identify individuals who have gone above and beyond for kindness. Brad’s selfless determination to share the experience of a first descent and empower cancer patients to redefine their relationship with their body and life caused him to stand out.

Specifically, the proceeds will support First Descents’ “Tribs” programming. Tribs are community-based groups created to serve and support First Descents alumni and prospective participants at a local level. The KIND team will also be launching a digital campaign in summer 2015 to celebrate the life-changing work that Brad and his team are doing for cancer patients and survivors.

Brad is a testament that passion can fuel your life and become your job. When asked how you can make your passion you livelihood, he said “First thing is first – focus on your passion, seek it every day, get to know it intimately and then listen to it for your purpose and path. Happiness holds the answers, don’t doubt it. Once the answer is presented on what it is you should pursue, don’t waver, give up or slow down! Ignore the naysayers, or better yet, use their negativity as fuel for your positivity. Find your lighthouse – someone you can call on the dark days who will remind you that your idea is a good one and it will materialize. For me, this was my Mom, and First Descents wouldn’t be here were it not for her believing in me when nobody else did.”

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This article is in partnership with KIND Snacks as part of the Do The KIND Thing Campaign.