Each year CNN honors 10 Heroes, men and women whose causes they support vary as much as their backgrounds and who have dedicated their lives to changing the world. In December 2016 Brad Ludden was featured as one of the "CNN Heroes" for 2016 and his efforts were highlighted at "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute," a global broadcast event , co-hosted by Kelly Ripa and Anderson Cooper. CNN aired this special 10th-annual show live from New York's American Museum of Natural History.
Brad was born in Wyoming and raised in Northwest Montana. He spent his days in the outdoors with his family hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, skiing and, of course, kayaking. Of all his passions, kayaking caught his eye the most. His parents gave him his first kayak when he was 9 and at age 12 he was traveling and competing internationally.
Cancer went from being just some random word to something very personal when he was 12 and his Aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 38. After watching her endure cancer and seeing how little support there was available to her, Brad started volunteering for a local pediatric oncology program by teaching the participants how to kayak. He fell in love with it and decided it was time to do more so at 18, he started working on an organization that would soon become First Descents. Its goal- to help young adults like his Aunt by giving them the life changing experience of kayaking. “I wanted to recreate the experience of a ‘first descent’ that had so greatly impacted my life, for people like my aunt who really needed it. Even though thousands of people have been down the rivers they’re kayaking at camp, it’s still the FIRST time they’ve been down it and that’s the magic of FD!”
Brad's nonprofit - First Descents - offers free outdoor adventures based around kayaking, surfing and rock climbing. The weeklong camps are held at picturesque locations, where 15 young adult cancer fighters and survivors from across the country come together to challenge themselves physically and bond with others who've gone through the same battle. "While thousands of people have kayaked these sections of river before them, it's their first time down," Brad said. "You see it at the bottom of the rapids in the look of accomplishment and pride on their faces."
Since 2001, Brad and his group have brought these transformative experiences to more than 3,000 people.
"I have learned more from First Descents' participants than anything else in my entire life. I've learned how to be much more vulnerable, the importance of laughter and to not just accept each day as it comes but to go out and define it." Brad Ludden
Brad's first descents introduced him to risk taking, the feeling of being empowered, meeting challenges head on, and facing fear. Brad believes First Descents allows young adult survivors and fighters to be empowered through conquering legitimate outdoor challenges to push their limits and face their fears, and by doing so, they are able to regain the confidence and self-efficacy lost to cancer. The experience is designed to allow healing to happen naturally and organically in community.
A first descent is the first time anyone has successfully navigated a river or a section of a river, but it’s also a metaphor for traveling along uncharted waters. It’s the first time you face a serious illness, approach a workplace challenge, overcome an addiction, or any FIRST that you have not conquered before.
Are you prepared to face the challenge? Do you have coping skills to get through to the other side successfully? Invite Brad to deliver an inspirational message about the heroes he has met through First Descents. Hear their stories, learn to be vulnerable, appreciate the importance of laughter and determine not to just accept each day as it comes but to go out and define it.
Brad knows a thing or two about change, stress and being innovative. He has faced it countless times while preparing to kayak over the biggest drop, run the nastiest rapid, or power through Herculean water. He has faced huge pressure to paddle very, very dangerous stretches of rivers. Friends have died. Injuries have been sustained. The river can be daunting.
One thing is for certain, change is ongoing, and managing it is a continual process. Whatever environment you are facing it is both uncertain and dynamic and sometimes bordering on chaos. It’s important to be able to identify the need for change and be ready to guide the actual change process. On river expeditions and as Founder of First Descents, Brad has applied agile and iconoclastic thinking to address changing environments, risks, and opportunities. In his keynote, Brad offers stories of inspiration and guidance in mastering the unexpected.