A fourth time around for First Descents | VailDaily.com
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A fourth time around for First Descents

Scott Willoughby

Standing on one side of a 1,000-foot chasm, a lean 17-year-old they call “Kenny G” extends his hand toward a compatriot attempting to cross a makeshift 6-inch footbridge. “Trust me,” Kenny says. “Once you get past that point, you got it.”The “chasm,” of course, isn’t real, just a small patch of grass between two railroad ties. But the metaphor it might represent to Kenny and the other 15 cancer patients in this week’s First Descents camp for teenagers is hardly imagined. Each of them has looked down that chasm and taken a leap of faith, choosing at some point to not only live, but thrive. And now they are here in the Vail Valley to share their experiences and thrive among one another.It’s day one at this fourth annual summer camp, and directors Brad Ludden and Corey Neilson and a host of supporters look on as counselor Innis Isom challenges the participants with a series of team-building exercises in Minturn’s Malloit Park. The chasm forces campers to work together for the benefit of the group, to solve a problem, learn trust and overcome fear. Such lessons would come into play later this afternoon, employed in a new challenge once considered too great to achieve by many of those on hand.First Descents is built around whitewater kayaking, a sport that in Ludden’s words offers “infinite challenges.” And few would know better than Ludden, 23, a career kayaker who makes his home in Gypsum but was raised in Montana and has paddled in more than 40 countries around the world since turning pro at age 18. For Kenny Higgins and the others who signed on for the week-long adventure, kayaking and its associated challenges serve simply as further proof that even infinite challenges can be overcome.”It gives you a certain kind of confidence that you can do anything, and that somebody is always there for you,” said Garrett Parker, who traveled from Dallas along with Higgins to return to First Descents for the second consecutive year. “I love it.”The enthusiasm is contagious at First Descents, much like the courage of young participants who have left hospitals and cancer treatments behind to tackle a new challenge. Even as the clouds gave way to a cold rain on Monday afternoon the group donned the necessary equipment and launched their kayaks for their introductory lessons to the sport on a pond in Eagle-Vail.”It’s hard, but it’s fun though,” says Al Fields, a 17-year-old from Cincinnati who underwent his last treatment for lymphoma four years ago. “That was a lot scarier than flipping a kayak,” he adds.Ludden, who founded First Descents through the assistance of a committed group of supporters in 2001, sees learning to kayak as a practical tool for learning to overcome fears and obstacles in life. The week-long program he and the other counselors have developed through the years will employ several other tools such as whitewater rafting, rock climbing, motivational speakers and the team-building course but the foundation is based upon the tool that Ludden claims “has taught me who I am.””We’re aware of other camps and programs designed to accomplish similar goals, but we’re pretty proud of ourselves for developing a unique program,” Ludden said. “Our real goal is to see personal growth through each one of these kids and we knew the kayak could do that.”Suly Guerrero, 15, from Garland, Texas, knows it too. Back for her second year at First Descents, she never imagined herself in a kayak as she underwent a bone marrow transplant at age 7.”It’s intimidating at first, but I found the self-confidence that I can handle a kayak,” she says.First Descents which has expanded to include three sessions in Vail this summer has become a highlight for just about everyone involved, including its founders.”I didn’t fully grasp or understand how big a part of my life this would become,” said Ludden, whose mother Jinny, and sister, Courtney, are also instrumental in unifying the First Descents family. “I knew I wanted it to be a part, but I had no concept of how big it would be. I live my life differently and better now because of the camp. It’s had the most powerful impact on my life ever.” VTThose wishing to become a part of First Descents are encouraged to donate time and resources (transportation, equipment, food, etc.) by contacting Joel Heath of Untraditional Marketing at (970) 477-0111. Tax-deductible donations can be mailed to: First Descents, PO Box 2193, Vail, CO 81658. For more information, log onto http://www.firstdescents.com.


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