Front Range

Paying it Forward

Get Involved: A Denver nonprofit gets cancer patients into the great outdoors.

October 2012

When he was just 19, Denver resident Brad Ludden became Nike’s first sponsored kayaker. That same year, 2001, he founded a nonprofit called  First Descents  to offer a free kayaking camp as therapy for young adults fighting cancer. More than a decade later, First Descents employs 13 people, three interns, and 22 contract workers at its Denver office, and will run nearly 50 camps this year, including white-water kayaking and rock climbing. “I could never have anticipated it,” says Ludden, whose aunt battled cancer. What’s more, Ludden, 31, has grown the company using the “pay-it-forward” business model. The idea is simple: Participants—cancer survivors and patients between the ages of 18 and 39—can attend a one-week camp for free but are encouraged to donate at least $1 to First Descents, paying it forward for future participants. A dollar may not seem like much, but last year camp alumni, board members, and supporters—674 individuals, some of whom gave much more than a dollar—raised $850,000. Help First Descents by donating money, hosting a fund-raiser, or volunteering at a camp.