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You can see pictures of the ocean but still not understand how incredibly vast it is. Others can tell you about the smell of rain, but until you experience it with your own wet feet on the pavement, you can never truly appreciate it. And people can tell you what to expect on a First Descents trip, but there will always be an air of mystery until you go and see for yourself.
They can tell you that you are going to fall into bed at the end of the day, exhausted from waves and rocks, but they may not tell you about the purple sunrise mornings. They can tell you that you are going to meet people from all over the country with some of the most heart-wrenching and inspiring stories you have ever heard. But they may not tell you that you’ll only hear some of these stories if you take the time to listen very, very carefully. They can also tell you that you’ll do challenging, funny, and scary things, but they may not say some of the hardest and scariest and funniest won’t take place on the water at all, but instead around the campfire at night. They told me I needed to be prepared to encourage and support. No one told me that as a volunteer on a First Descents surf trip, I would be uplifted more than I ever thought possible.
I started working at First Descents Headquarters nearly three months ago. I heard cool stories in the office every day: stories about cancer survivors finding strength in their body again, strength in their mind again, or finding a friend to share the strength of their soul. I imagined what those stories looked like first hand, but I didn’t truly know.
My First Descents program was in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We surfed salty deep waves and held sandy yoga classes on the beach. I came from the Denver office as a volunteer photographer, with the goal of capturing moments when bonds were created or participants caught their first wave. In my mind I would be a rock, the one that participants could lean on if the waves got too big or the surf got too rough. Or I would be the net, catching anyone falling behind and keeping the team together. I was wrong.
The misconception I held coming into this program was that people might need to lean on my shoulder, but that I would not need the same thing. I forgot what is one of First Descents’ core truths: we are a team. Survivor, surf instructor, volunteer, photographer, or dish washer–we lean on and support each other equally. I had yet to experience FD’s community first hand.
I remember vividly the third day in the ocean: the wetsuits were a little saltier and damper, and it was harder to pull them up over our shoulders. I had made it a personal goal to get some in-water surf photos on this day. I treaded water in the choppy waves and aimed to be as close as possible to surfers as they stood up on their board, plunging towards the shore.
Anyone who has treaded water in waves for longer than fifteen minutes will be familiar with the feeling of numb arms, tired legs, and the desperate desire to keep your head above water. For anyone who has treaded water for over two hours while trying to take photos of young adults living and surviving cancer owning big waves, it is mind-numbingly exhausting. My eyes were salty. My lips were cold. My limbs were numb.
In the midst of this exhausted state I was not a rock, and I was not a net. In all honesty, I was less like the mermaid photographer I had imagined and more like seaweed with a camera and bad hair. In fact, the very people who I had assumed would need me to lean on reached into the water and loaded me onto their surfboards. I held on while they paddled, because their arms weren’t too tired yet. They provided the encouragement I was so certain I wouldn’t require. We were a team. It was my turn to lean.
One of the most powerful things about First Descents is that in our community everyone’s role is dynamic. No one is just a participant, just a cook, just a dish-washer, or just a survivor or administrator or donor. Around FD it’s a little different. Maybe you are a survivor but you are also the idea guy, the joke teller, and the one who needs a little help getting up on the surfboard. Perhaps you are the volunteer but you are also the encourager, the one who needs a little help climbing out of your shell, and who is secretly an incredible dancer. Maybe you are the photographer and the new girl at First Descents Headquarters and the person who needs to hold on to the surfboard when the waves get too big. The group is symbiotic. I have never felt something that meshes so perfectly as a group of strangers who become family on a First Descents Program.
The feeling is not something you can see in a brochure and understand. It’s not a club you can join or an initiation you can complete. It is simply this: my team knows when to ask for a hand up out of the waves, and when to encourage the others to keep on paddling.