20 Years Out Living It

In celebration of our 20th anniversary, please consider a $20 donation to support First Descents and extend the healing power of adventure to young adults impacted by cancer and other serious health conditions.

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Our Team

Brad Ludden

"Man Salmon"

Founder

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. By 18 he had kayaked in over 20 countries and found his true passion within the sport, first descents. A first descent is the first time a person successfully kayaks a river or section of river that has never been done. Through his first descents he found immense challenge, adventure, community and personal growth.

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!”

While Brad still kayaks and has some sponsors like Dagger, AT Paddles, Kokatat and Smith Optics, he focuses the majority of his time on helping FD grow to serve more young adults with cancer.

Ryan O’Donoghue

"Wolf"

Executive Director

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. During his tenure, First Descents has experienced considerable growth and received the following acknowledgements: Top 10 CNN HeroColoradoBiz 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

"Spudz"

Director of Programs

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

"Fridge"

Director of Advancement

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.

Becca Rohrer

"Turtle"

Senior Marketing Manager

Becca (aka Turtle) hails from Asheville, North Carolina (the East Coast Denver). After graduating from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, she moved to the nation’s capitol for a short stint where she worked in marketing for an environmental non-profit.

Becca moved to Denver to get back to adventuring in the mountains, rivers and sunshine and is thrilled to work for an organization that is connecting folks to the outdoors and empowering people to live beyond their diagnosis!

Paul Kelly

"Crash"

Senior Program Manager

There are only three things you need to know about Crash.
1. He has been called the songbird of his generation.
2. Every time he boofs, an angel spreads its wings.
3. He can kill two stones with one bird.
He is Crash, and he is the most somewhat interesting man in the world.

Adam Schuster

"Toby"

Director of Finance and Operations

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. Most recently, 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.

John Scheid

"Fever Dog"

Healthcare Partnerships & Recruitment Manager

John Scheid (LCSW) joins First Descents after spending three years as a medical social worker at University of Colorado Hospital. During his time in the UCHealth system, John managed hundreds of unique cases while working with a true interdisciplinary team of nurses, doctors, psychologists, and other hospital staff. Prior to earning his Master of Social Work (MSW) at the University of Denver, John worked in the outdoor sector for three years guiding adventure trips for multiple experiential adolescent development programs. At First Descents, John is thrilled to combine his passion for outdoor adventure with his professional experience helping people overcome the challenges of medical treatment and recovery. When he’s not at the FD office, John enjoys discovering new live music, snowboarding, and trail running with his dog, Luna!

Willie Kern

"Sweet D"

Global Experience Developer

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.

Brooke Barry

"Noodles"

Community Engagement Coordinator

Brooke (aka “Noodles”) was raised in Illinois- the stomping grounds of Abraham Lincoln and Kanye West. The loved for the outdoors brought Brooke to Colorado where she studied Environmental Studies and Geography at CU-Boulder. After graduation, she had the opportunity to backpack through Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand where Brooke tried any and all cuisines (grasshopper, anyone?).

The mountains continued to call her name, so she made her way back to Colorado and has called this great state home ever since. Brooke is beyond excited to be a part of the First Descents family, and stoked to follow her passion in adventure-based healing for young adult cancer fighters and survivors!

Anna Kenyon

"06"

Marketing Coordinator

Originating from Dedham, MA, Anna “06” Kenyon grew up adventuring in the Northeast, and graduated from Middlebury College in Spring of 2016.  After a few months of post-grad travel, she packed up and drove west.

As an avid outdoorswoman and Art History major, she joins the marketing team at FD to combine her love of design and the outdoors.  She’s thrilled to join First Descents and provide more opportunities for young adults impacted by cancer to get out livin’ it!

Andrew Coulter

"Tops"

Development 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 Tribe!

Melissa Markle

"Master Splinter"

Chief of Staff

Melissa was raised in the Eastern Pennsylvania town made famous by Billy Joel, but her love of adventure and the outdoors finally brought her west after nine years of playing and working in New York City. She finds her deepest peace traveling to unfamiliar places with her camera in hand, and in 2013 spent four months living at a South African orphanage, helping with marketing and photography needs. Melissa believes the blessing is often outside of one’s comfort zone, and experienced this to be true when training for her first half marathon a few years ago. She continues to love the meditative nature of running, and recently received her certification to teach mindfulness meditation to others. With a unique blend of for-profit and nonprofit experience, and a heartfelt personal connection to First Descent’s mission, Melissa is thrilled to be joining the FD team in her new home of Denver.

Kate Medici

"Lil' Mo"

Programs Coordinator

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!

Alex Krahn

"Peaches"

Programs Manager

Alex Krahn grew up in Ft Collins, CO and learned to fish, camp, ski, and knock holes in walls with his 3 brothers. He graduated from CU Boulder with a degree in environmental biology and a serious powder habit.

He’s super excited to join the FD family after a decade-long career in corporate America, negotiating software contracts and generally finding himself disappointed at the lack of on-river days guaranteed in the benefits package. Alex has a passion for workplace diversity and inclusion, process design, and ensuring stellar customer service and participant experience.

In his own words- “beyond grateful for the opportunity to help our people keep on Out Living It!”

Kristin McMaster

"Tortuga"

Mental Health Resource Specialist

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!

Emma Burick

Development Officer

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!

Riley Schumm

"Chum"

Programs Coordinator

Riley, or Chum as she is known at FD, grew up in Denver, CO, where her love for the outdoors and adventure grew from a young age.  Chum left Denver for a few years while she was in school at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA. While there she studied Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Philosophy, and spent much of her time as an outdoor guide for the universities outdoor recreation program. As an outdoor guide for the program she had the opportunity to bring fellow students and faculty into the outdoors, and also began working as a program coordinator for the organization.  After graduating, Chum moved back to Denver and is thrilled to be home and working for an organization that is dear to her heart.

Jason Eshleman

"Buck (Naked)"

Program Coordinator

Jason (aka BuckNaked) is just a fun loving fella from good ol’ Indiana. He majored in Outdoor Recreation and Resource Management at Indiana University, go Hoosiers! After graduating college, Jason set out on a two-month mountain bike tour down the Continental Divide to “figure things out”. During this tour he fell in love with the mountains and immediately moved to the Vail Valley where he worked as a ski instructor, mountain guide and cycling coach. After a couple years of “living the dream”, Jason migrated down to Denver with a mission to convince First Descents that he was the 4th best program coordinator on this blue dot we call earth.

Angelina Mangiardi

"Katniss"

Programs Coordinator

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!

Sloan

"Sloan Dog Millionaire"

Office Dog

Sloan Dawg embodies virtually none of the characteristics of a breed that was once used to hunt lions in the plains of South Africa… In fact, when in the office he spends most of his time trying to survive Dooby’s wrath!
Sloan received his nickname, Millionaire, because he is an official AKC Champion.  But he’s not a snob, he’s just goofy!

Luna

"Pterodactyl Socks"

Office Dawg

Hailing from the Colorado Rockies, Pterodactyl Socks speaks a little bit like a husky, retrieves and swims in Labrador fashion, and does everything else like a border collie. Her hobbies and interests include running, beards, sorting good kibble pieces from bad ones, methodically dismantling squeaker toys, and watching her human’s every move. Dislikes include squirrels and prolonged separation, so Pterodactyl Socks is beyond excited to hang out at the office with the First Descents team!

Barry

"Renob"

Office Dog

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.

Brew

"Sir Humpsalot"

Office Dog

Brew, like his dad is just a fun loving Indiana boy who feels most at home in the mountains. He spends his days running up and down trails herding his people, searching for Greenies, networking at the dog park, humping anything that moves and sleeping. He’s strongly convinced that every time his dad leaves he’s never coming back but when he does IT’S THE BEST DAY EVER!!!

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