Since its inception in 2001, Denver-based First Descents has helped more than 10,000 people who are impacted by diseases like cancer and multiple sclerosis experience the outdoors through its adventure programs—from mountain climbing in Colorado to surfing in San Diego and more. But just like many things, the coronavirus pandemic has forced the nonprofit to temporarily halt their longstanding programs, due both to public health directives and the higher risk of their participants. 

But that doesn’t mean that the organization is slowing down. Earlier this month, thanks to a grant from the Dunkin’ Joy in Childhood Foundation, First Descents created Hero Recharge, a new nationwide program that will provide free outdoor adventures to 1,000 health care workers fighting COVID-19.

“We’re now seeing an increase in the same psycho-social distress factors happening for health care workers that happen for young adults facing a cancer diagnosis,” says Becca Rohrer, First Descents’ marketing manager. “There have been really high rates of depression, stress, ongoing trauma, and PTSD, especially in those hardest-hit areas like New York City. We have all been hearing about it almost constantly—how they’ve never seen anything like it and it’s almost like going into a war zone each day.”

The Hero Recharge program will emphasize “non-conventional” adventures, which happens to be First Descents’ specialty. For example, participants will take part in outdoors activities like rock climbing, kayaking, rafting, paddle boarding, mountain biking, yoga, and surfing during the day. First Descents’ mental health specialist, Kristin McMaster, will also incorporate elements of healing and wellness into the schedule, like an evening campfire that acts as a space to speak about struggles participants have experienced.

 “Our hope is to take people out of their normal space, out of the hospital and the medical center, and put them into these outdoor spaces that liberate them physically and also mentally,” Rohrer says. More than the structured mental health support, Rohrer claims that “time to organically interact with their peers” who are facing similar challenges provides healing conversations and mutual understanding. 

To limit risk, the programs will stay local to the participants chosen. For instance, Denver health care workers will be taken only a few hours drive away, perhaps rock climbing in Boulder Canyon, or kayaking in Buena Vista, and those in New York City will head upstate for their adventure. Each participant will be screened for symptoms on arrival and will fill out medical forms so organizers are aware of everyone’s risks and needs. First Descents’ medical advisory board and coronavirus task force plan to update the program as more information about the virus becomes available.

The application is open now. So far, more than 6,000 health care providers have expressed interest, which leaves the nonprofit with tough decisions to make. Rohrer says they’ll narrow down the list of participants based on which providers in an area are most impacted by COVID-19, and those working directly with COVID-19 patients on a daily basis. The program is expected to launch later this summer or in the early fall, and First Descents plans to continue it throughout and after the crisis to serve as many care providers as possible in the coming years. 

“Our goal is to equip health care workers with the healing power of adventure,” Rohrer says.