Ryan (aka, “Wolf”) has a unique blend of for-profit, non-profit and direct experience with the young adult cancer community. After losing his brother, Colin, to cancer as a young adult, Ryan founded Rise Above It (RAI), an organization committed to advancing the field of adolescent and young adult oncology (AYAO). He was originally introduced to First Descents (FD) through his work at RAI and in collaboration with the LIVESTRONG Young Adult Alliance.
Prior to joining FD, Ryan worked at the LIVESTRONG Foundation where he supported individual major gifts, foundation grants, corporate engagement, and also managed the Young Leaders Cancer Council (YLCC).
In his early career, Ryan worked in Accenture’s Strategy Practice where he managed Fortune 500 client accounts across several industries. Ryan holds B.S.B.A. in Finance & Technology Management from Georgetown University, where he was captain of the football team and an Academic All-American in 2000.
Ryan joined First Descents as Executive Director in December, 2013. He now serves as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of First Descents and FD’s for-profit subsidiary company, Stoke Broker. During his tenure at FD, First Descents has experienced considerable growth and received the following acknowledgements: Top 10 CNN Hero, ColoradoBiz 30th Anniversary Top Company (Non-Profit Category), OUTSIDE’s Best Places to Work. In 2018, The Denver Business Journal recognized Ryan for his leadership in the class of 40 under 40 honorees.
Mackenzie McGrath joins First Descents with more than a decade of experience designing and managing healing programs around the world as an aid worker, US diplomat and non-profit consultant in Asia, Africa, North America and the Middle East. In 2014, Mackenzie started her own consulting company and also starting working as part time climbing instructor. Mackenzie has a graduate degree in International Studies and a Master’s level Certificate from Harvard University in Global Mental Health. This cause is deeply personal, having lost her brother – Taurin – to cancer as a young adult. Mackenzie is excited to be part of the FD team, and looks forward to combining her passion for the outdoors and her dedication to building high-impact healing programs for young adults with cancer.
Ray Shedd joins First Descents with an extensive background in nonprofit development, partnership activation, and brand storytelling. Previously, Ray was Director of Partnerships and Marketing at Positive Tracks, where he was responsible for the design and implementation of the organization’s fundraising and marketing efforts. A big believer in adventure and recreation-based healing, Ray was also Senior Development Officer at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp (THITWGC). During his 9 years with THITWGC, he built a robust corporate partners program and helped diversify the organization’s endurance and peer-to-peer (P2P) fundraising platform. He also led on key foundation and major gift accounts designed to support Camp’s rapidly growing programs for children coping with cancer and other serious illnesses. Ray holds degrees in History and Sociology from the University of Connecticut and a Masters in Organizational Leadership and Nonprofit Management from Quinnipiac University. When not serving the mission of First Descents, Ray can be found playing in the mountains with his golden retriever, Sundance.
Me in 140 Characters or Less: Avid adventurer and philanthropy nerd; Plays outside as much as possible; Believes in the power of love and coffee.
Adam comes from a tiny Chicago suburb – Sleepy Hollow, IL. After graduating from the University of Dayton in 2007, he spent a year in Malawi managing the finances for a trade school in the northern part of the country. Upon returning to the States, he spent over five years working in the private sector for one of the world’s largest shipping container logistics providers and outdoor retail giant REI. Previously, Adam spent some time back in East Africa in Uganda managing a chlorine dispenser project within the country. Adam has served as a board member for the University of Dayton Alumni Association and the Secret Agents of Change, as well as the young professional board at Project C.U.R.E., and is thrilled to be a part of the ever-growing FD Community.
Amy comes to First Descents with over 20 years of experience in the non-profit world, mostly in the therapeutic outdoor adventure space serving youth and young adults. Her program development and fundraising have taken her across the country to organizations in CT, TX, CO, and MT. Born and raised in Texas (Hook’em Horns!) and small-town Colorado, Amy spent years after college traveling and working in all the best places, including Colorado and New Zealand.
Her desire to be back in the mountains and having daily adventure took her to Montana where she worked with Big Sky Youth Empowerment for 10 years to not only develop and increase the program depth and capacity, but also shape their fundraising model. Amy thoroughly believes in FD’s programs and mission and is excited to join the team and be a part of what is to come in the future. When not serving the mission of First Descents, you can find her adventuring in the mountains or lakes or creeks, usually with her three kids and two dogs.
Chris Dolan joins First Descents with an extensive background in marketing, brand partnerships, experiential activation and event production. He has held senior positions with brands, agencies and properties. Chris brings over 20 years of experience championing integrated teams, leading strategy, developing programming,
managing partnerships with many of today’s leading brands and properties including Jeep, Kellogg’s, MillerCoors, Vail Resorts, NFL, NASCAR and Live Nation.
Originally from Connecticut, Chris made his way to Colorado for college and never looked back. He attended Regis University where he earned his degree in Business Communications and Sports Marketing.
If he is not skiing down a mountain, you can find him adventuring somewhere outdoors with his wife (Carrie), daughter (Taylor) and two dogs (Teddy & Moose).
Nancy (aka Chamaloola) grew up mostly in St. Louis where she was always looking for the next highest tree to climb or woods to explore. She lived a short stint in Denver at three years old, and that was when the magic of the mountains, adventure, and the wilderness made their mark on her heart and aspirations. She moved west after high school to attend Colorado College and during her time there, she discovered her love for introducing others to the beauty and power of play and nature.
Nancy began her professional outdoor career right after graduation working for the Colorado Outward Bound School (COBS) leading mountaineering, climbing, and canyoneering courses. She originally planned to only do be involved with the outdoor industry for a few years and then buckle down and find a “real” job. However, seeing hundreds of participants positively, and forever, transformed by their outdoor experiences each year, only made her passion for this work grow. She eventually worked her way into Program Director, and then the Director of Operations of Safety of the school. Next thing she knew, she had worked for COBS for over 20 years.
In 2017, Nancy decided to finally pursue that real job. She attended the University of Colorado College of Nursing, earning a Bachelor’s of Nursing in 2019 through their accelerated program. Just as the pandemic was starting in April 2020, Nancy started her career as a nurse – on a Covid unit. She spent two years working with Covid patients, families, and teams of frontline workers, experiencing acutely the overwhelming lows, the occasional moments of joy, and the hardships that these past few years presented.
Needing to take a break and rejuvenate, Nancy decided to return to the positivity and power of facilitating life-changing outdoor adventures. She sought a place that would also value her experiences as a healthcare worker, and she found that at First Descents. She feels honored to work at FD now, facilitating programs that allow her – and so many others – to heal and thrive through the magic and connection of outdoor experiences.
A Bay Area native, Mike kicked off his career working at big name tech companies. But while volunteering as a snowboard guide with Burton Chill and Discovery Blind Sports in his free time, Mike saw the incredible impact those programs had on people and stepped away from the tech world to focus on community efforts. For the next ten years, Mike filled the full spectrum of executive nonprofit roles. Mike has helped lead the Adaptive Sports Center in Crested Butte, Paradox Sports and most recently the Ouray Ice Park. Mike’s enthusiasm, creativity and responsiveness has contributed to his overwhelming success in making sure EVERYONE can experience the outdoors.
Becca (aka Turtle) comes to First Descents with an extensive background in nonprofit marketing, brand storytelling, and communications. Originally hailing from and now residing once again in Asheville, North Carolina, Becca enjoys the mountains, rivers, and trails of WNC on a daily basis. After graduating from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, she moved to the nation’s capitol for where she worked in marketing, events, and communications for an environmental non-profit advocating for clean energy and climate legislation. Following several years in D.C., Becca moved to Denver to join First Descents and is thrilled to work for an organization dedicating to connecting individuals to the outdoors and empowering people to live beyond their diagnosis!
Emma hails from Salt Lake City, Utah where she grew up skiing in the Wasatch mountains and camping in the deserts of Southern Utah. Dreams of Douglas Firs and maple bacon donuts soon brought her to Portland, Oregon where she attended the University of Portland. Upon graduating, Emma joined a small nonprofit and escaped the city to become a river guide on the Rogue and Lower Salmon Rivers. One summer of sun salutes later and her passion to bring adventure to those in need was born. In search of the Last Best Place, Emma joined a nonprofit in Bozeman, Montana where she dived deeper into the world of fundraising and mastered the art of exploring in bear country. Thrilled to continue her quest of the West in Denver, Emma is excited to join FD and bring the healing power of adventure and community to as many young adults as possible!
Willie (aka Sweet D) was raised in northern New England and beyond as a skier, a boater, a biker, and ultimately a lover of all things wild. He is a self-proclaimed river runner respected by generations of paddlers who is also recognized internationally as a voice of conservation, communication and safety on the river.
Over the last two and a half decades, he has assembled a portfolio of kayak descents from the Americas to Asia and often on first descents of the worlds most technically and logistically challenging runs. For some, most notably he was a member of the expedition that became the first to run the legendary “Upper Gorges” of the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo.
In addition to becoming one of the foremost expedition paddlers, Willie has also worked developing eco-tourism and guide training programs in Asia for over a decade. He has worked on both sides of the lens for several adventure documentaries. And throughout, he has taught and coached with a host of accredited experiential, alternative and outdoor educational programs. Willie speaks publicly in favor of the protection of cultural and natural heritage and he has guided on and around rivers for as long as he can remember.
Keith grew up in The Region and after graduating from Purdue University he promptly moved out west where he spent years organizing and raising money for environmental & social justice non-profit organizations, including the Sierra Club & the Human Rights Campaign, in Arizona, Oregon, and Colorado.
Keith fell in love with Colorado and decided to make it home. He next helped start an organization that raises millions of dollars for PBS across the country. He continues to serve as a board member for a number of these organizations and stays involved as much as possible. When not working you will find him snowboarding, rafting, or canyoneering. Keith is beyond excited to bring his experience and passion to the FD team and to continue to build on its mission.
Annie was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. While Annie always loved being outside as a kid, her life was changed when she stumbled her way onto a NOLS trip in college and found her love for outdoor recreation. Since then she has prioritized communing in nature with others both personally and professionally. In between summers working as a backpacking guide with Moondance Adventures, Annie has been a marketing analyst, software developer, and SEO guru. She decided it was time to fuse her passion for creating life changing outdoor experiences with her data oriented brain as the Finance & Operations Coordinator for FD. Outside of work, Annie loves skiing, playing games, making pottery, and romping around with her husband (Landon) and dog (Nellie). Annie feels lucky to be joining the FD community!
Angelina (aka “Katniss”) grew up on a farm in Western Massachusetts where she developed a passion for the outdoors. After her own cancer diagnosis, she attended a First Descents rock climbing program and experienced firsthand the healing power of adventure. From then on, Katniss made it her mission to connect people to the environment.
She worked as Environmental Education Program Assistant at FWS in Fairbanks, AK. After exploring Alaska, Katniss went on to work as Farm-to-School Coordinator for Mālama Kaua’i, a non profit working for sustainability across Kaua’i. Katniss then decided to venture back to the mainland to join the FD family as Program Coordinator!
Tops is from the bustling metropolis of Weatherford, TX – located 20 miles west of Fort Worth, near the edge of civilization. He attended The University of Texas at Austin where he majored in Kinesiology. After his freshman year he witnessed the last two weeks of his grandfather’s struggle with liver cancer. This became the reason he joined Texas 4000 where he served as the 2016 Rockies Ride Director & led the zaniest team of 20 riders on their bike ride from Austin, TX to Anchorage, AK in order to raise money for cancer research. Through that experience he interacted with First Descents and immediately knew he wanted to be apart of the FD family!
Kate (aka Lil’ Mo) hails from Phoenix, the land of haboobs, strong AC, and endless Saguaros. Continuing her life as a desert rat, she attended the University of Arizona to study psychology and explore the glorious mountains surrounding Tucson. Taking a break from the seriousness of school, she moved to Denver (a place where she could actually experience seasons) and spent the next part couple years working in the outdoor industry in an array of positions: rock wall driver, instructor, cyclist intern, customer service representative, and (somehow) accounting assistant.
Although she tried to leave Colorado in 2018 when embarking on 6 months of bike touring, her legs inevitably got tired and she couldn’t help but get pulled back to the place that stole her heart. She was fortunate enough to join the First Descents team in 2019, and looks forward to working with the Programs Team to continue to bring the FD mission to more young adults!
As an east coast native, Anna grew up in Richmond, VA and graduated from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in 2020. With a craving for adventure, she quickly fled west after graduation to start Out Living It.
While figuring out the post-grad life and witnessing her father’s battle with glioblastoma back home, she came across First Descents and never looked back.
With a love for the outdoors and an urge to continue her work in the non-profit world, Anna is thrilled to help further the First Descents mission as the Marketing and Events Coordinator.
Sophie (aka “Bubbles”) was born and raised in a quintessential New England town (think Gilmore Girls) and spent her summers going to camp in Colorado. Her love for the outdoors and Colorado lead her to Colorado College where she studied sociology and global health. After college, she spent a year in the magical kingdom of Bhutan, aka “land of the thunder dragon” coordinating student life for a study abroad program.
After Bhutan, Sophie made her way back to Colorado and spent the past 4 years working for Girls on the Run, a non-profit working to empower girls ages 8-14. She is super excited to join the programs team at FD, and can’t wait to provide outdoor adventures for as many young adults as possible!
Kristin McMaster (aka “Tortuga”) joins FD from California as our Mental Health Resource Specialist. Kristin volunteered for FD back in 2011 while working as a Young Adult Oncology Social Worker and it was an experience that left a permanent mark on her heart. She has an unwavering belief in the strength of the wilderness to heal and help empower people facing challenges like a cancer diagnosis. Kristin received her Masters of Social Work from the University of Southern California with a concentration in Health and following the completion of her MSW program, she was recruited to build an AYAO psychosocial support program at UC Irvine’s Cancer Center. She is incredibly passionate about working with this population and is very excited to support our efforts here at FD in her new role. When she is not wearing her counselor’s hat you can find Kristin out in the ocean on her surfboard or roaming the beautiful trails of California!
Mia Lewis serves as the Chef Manager for First Descents – a role she is truly grateful for. After raising her five children and being in the hair industry for 20 years, Mia became extremely curious about the food she was consuming and how it was impacting her body. This personal journey led her to the Natural Gourmet Institute (NGI) to fulfill her goal of sharing the healing properties of food with others.
Mia found First Descents shortly after she graduated from NGI in 2013 as a health supportive chef, and has been serving the organization ever since. She instantly saw how, just like outdoor adventure, food can help participants heal, inspire them to make lifestyle changes, and provide a new opportunity for “challenge by choice” through different/healthier food options.
After working nearly 40 programs with First Descents, Mia assumed an even more rewarding role in 2018 as Chef Manager. She has since grown the chef team from six people to more than 25 – all trained in supportive cooking. While she still gets out on programs, building this team has been one of her most rewarding experiences.
Mia’s journey to discover ways to nurture and heal the body didn’t stop with delicious food. During the pandemic, Mia was craving community and other ways to help people feel better in their bodies. This led her to pursue her 200-hour yoga teacher training certification and she is now not only teaching yoga in her local community, but is sprinkling it into FD programs as well.
The most joyful part of Mia’s job is knowing that she has been able to provide participants with the gift of nourishment. There is nothing quite like the feeling when she runs into participants years down the line who are still eating plant-based or are feeling so much better because of diet changes they were inspired to make.
Barry spent his youth practicing the dog-o-lin under the tutelage of renowned dog-violinist Chester P Barkington. His dream was to one day attend Juilliard as the first Canine pupil. He practiced until his little paws were raw. When it came time for his audition to the famed school he was nervous. So nervous, in fact, that as he played his first note, he indiscreetly and unfortunately let out a little poo as well. The judges were not impressed. Forlorn after his fall from the spotlight, Barry wandered the streets of Houston living off the land and wallowing in his self pity. There he would have stayed if it were not for his best friend Toby, who was there to rescue him both physically and mentally. Toby taught him that it was okay to poop, everybody poops. Barry now spends most of his days pooping in hallways, parking garages, and cars – proud of his accomplishments and unashamed of his past. We salute how far Barry has come. Poop on young Barry, Poop on.
Albus shot into the world on a sunny day in April 2020. At 8 weeks old, he was adopted and went home with his forever family. Early on Albus knew he had big shoes to fill, but after his family caught him eating rocks, wood, and his own clumps of fur, it became clear he probably wouldn’t become the most powerful wizard in the world. After a long period of denial, Albus accepted his place in the world and now enjoys napping on the couch, playing with toys, cuddling with his family, and plotting the demise of all the world’s rabbits and squirrels.
Shanti is a sweet and sassy Rhodesian Ridgeback who is slowly but surely embracing her role to fill her big brother, Sloan’s pawprints. Born in May 2019, she came into her prime as a pandemic pup. She loves adventures in the mountains, frolicking on trails through summer wildflowers, autumn leaves and winter snow. Her parents, Wolf and Sprinkles, admit that Shanti is a bit spoiled, but she claims that all her four-legged friends are too. Perhaps most importantly, Shanti is a give’r of expert snuggz and lots of love!
Cassady spent the first couple years of his life escaping from yards in rural Texas. As a repeat offender he ended up on death row. Luckily for him and the rest of us he was rescued at the 11th hour by a shelter in the Colorado mountains. This is where he found his forever home and moved to Denver. It took Cassady a while to adjust to city life and learn how to be a dog. He had never been in a house before let alone the city and didn’t understand what toys were and how fun they are. He still likes to escape whenever he can, but he hasn’t ended up back in the pound, yet. Cassady loves long walks, napping on the couch, and belly rubs, lots of belly rubs.