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First Descents gets scientific: Nonprofit partners with Stanford University to study effect of its programs

Denver-based nonprofit First Descents, which facilitates outdoor adventures for young adults battling cancer, recently announced it’s been working with Stanford University on a study to determine the effects of its programming.

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The outdoor industry supportss an impressive group of nonprofit organizations. It’s also filled with great people who know that getting into the outdoors lifts spirits, confidence and happiness levels in a therapeutic way.

But there hasn’t been a lot of quantitative data to back up that stance. Denver-based nonprofit First Descents, which provides week-long outdoor adventures to young adults battling and surviving cancer, recently announced that during the past year it’s been working with Stanford University on a study to determine the effects of outdoor adventures. 

Yearning to say, “I told you so”

Stanford University psychologists Stephen Kosslyn and Robin S. Rosenberg are heading up the study, gathering data from participants and those in First Descents’ Base Camp (aka, the wait list) to determine the psychosocial impact of First Descents camps. 

Genetech sponsored the study, and in a synopsis First Descents released, officials said they hope it will provide quantitative data to back up what First Descents alumni have been telling them all along – that their lives have been enhanced by their experiences.

“Based on testimonials and feedback we get from our participants, we’ve come to believe what we’re doing with these programs isn’t a luxury or vacation,” First Descents Founder Brad Ludden told SNEWS. “It’s actually a type of therapy.

“We really do believe that we’re delivering something effective,” Ludden added. Having data to show how the activities impact participants could be invaluable to the future of the organization, as it will legitimize what participants say and could lead to additional medical and institutional funding. Such funding has been difficult to secure, Ludden said.

“A lot of people who don’t quickly identify with the outdoors and haven’t been affected by the outdoors need to see something like this to understand the program and make sure it’s important,” Ludden said.

First Descents Director of Programs Whitney Lange said the organization couldn’t get too specific on the methodology used, but did note the two groups of subjects include participants and those on the waiting list. Both groups fill out a questionnaire prior to the former group’s first camp regarding their feelings of self-esteem and other psychosocial measures. Then both groups fill out the same questionnaire after the first group’s camp.

What can you do?

Since it has been hard to secure that institutional funding for its programs, First Descents has relied on volunteers, donors and other types of corporate sponsorships.

As with most nonprofits, First Descents always is looking for funding and volunteers.

“We’re always looking for more and more volunteers and for people to support us financially,” Ludden said. “These programs are free to the young adults we serve cancer isn’t cheap.”

It costs $1,000 to send one person on a First Descents adventure, and volunteers are needed to help with the camps. Also, Ludden said, people can raise funds for the organization by signing up for any number of First Descents Challenge Teams. There is usually a challenge team for big races like the New York City Marathon or the Leadville Trial 100.

Plus, Ludden said, though the waiting list, which the staff refers to as Base Camp, has a good number of people in it, the crew is always looking for more cancer survivors to get active in its programs.

“One of the biggest issues that young adults with cancer face is the feeling of isolation,” Ludden said. “Those issues are easy to combat by getting them into an authentic group setting where you start to see those feelings of isolation and alimentation disappear. That in and of itself is a huge step toward healing.”

One participant, whose name wasn’t given, said the camp was “the most amazing experience I’ve ever had. I did things I didn’t think I could and I really pushed myself for the first time since I was diagnosed. I felt proud of myself for the first time since I was diagnosed.”

First Descents, alumni of its programs, staff and Team First Descents members are all part of a community, which is what Ludden is trying to create.

“One of the biggest things we’re striving to create is community especially as it relates to something like cancer,” Ludden addedn. “We want them to know they’re not alone. They have support and that’s a pretty important.”

For more information on how to help, or for updates on the research, visit

–Ana Trujillo