By Shelby Stanger
It's been said that nature is the ultimate healer.
That's one of the reasons Tower Standup Paddleboards teamed up with First Descents, a non-profit organization that provides outdoor adventure therapy to young adults with cancer, last week in San Diego.
They gathered at Mission Bay in San Diego to teach a group of cancer survivors and fighters how to stand up paddle as part of First Descents new FD Mobile Tour.
Brad Ludden, a kayaker whose aunt was diagnosed with cancer when he was 19, started First Descents about 12 years ago to help cancer patients reclaim their lives through outdoor adventures.
"He took some of the patients from his Aunt's hospital kayaking, got a few grants, and the rest is history," said Jenna Catalona who was in San Diego on behalf of the organization.
Jenna was in San Diego on a road trip as part of First Descents' new FD Mobile tour, a campaign that aims to reach more young adult cancer survivors across the country through outdoor activities like standup paddling and surfing.
"Our motto is "Outliving it," said Jenna, who drove a Ford E350 Sportmobile conversion vehicle to San Diego from First Descents’ headquarters in Colorado.
The aim of the campaign is to have staff and past participants seek out more adventures across the country while promoting their mission and programs, Jenna said.
"We are living out these rad adventures on the road, like standup paddling in San Diego, and stopping at hospitals and cancer centers along the way," Jenna added.
The campaign kicked off in March and traveled to cities like Vail, Park City, Boise, Portland, Dallas, Santa Fe, Joshua Tree, Jackson, Bozeman, San Diego, and more. The crew blogs and films along the way, chronicling their experiences and the inspiring individuals they meet along the way.
Jenna chose San Diego partly because her close friend, Amy Fausset, runs the marketing for Tower Paddleboards. The fairly new SUP company in San Diego specializes in inflatable paddleboards. When Jenna mentioned the program to Amy, Tower Paddleboards jumped at the chance to provide boards and lessons for the day's event.
Jenna said she also chose San Diego because there were a handful of First Descents alumni and a variety of other young adult cancer organizations they work with in the area.
One FD alumni, a very effervescent and vivacious woman named Amanda Hitt, couldn't say enough positive things about her First Descents experience.
"I was three months out of chemo when I went on a First Descents kayaking trip," said Amanda, now 35, who was diagnosed with cancer three years ago.
"I went from thinking I was dying to rocking a class IV rapid in a hard shell kayak all by myself. It was something I would never thought of doing before."
Besides the sheer thrill and transformation that comes from dropping into a steep rapid, Amanda said the camaraderie that comes from being around other survivors is what makes First Descents programs so impactful.
"Paddling with people my same age who have walked through the same fire as me, that's the part that makes the most magic," she said.
While standup paddling on flat Mission Bay was a stark contrast to running a rapid, after the day's event, Amanda said she loved standup and will definitely try the sport again.
"It was epic!" she said. "SUPing reminded me of why I keep going and how I benefit by simply showing up for life. It’s quiet on the water, I can hear my jiminy cricket when it’s just nature and me. When you can remove the fear component, that's when real living begins."
Amanda, who went from fighting a pretty serious form of breast cancer to now participating in as many FD programs as she can and also launching a nonprofit that takes young adult cancer survivors paragliding (IAP4P), is clearly proof First Descents "Outliving It" motto is working.
For more info and to find out how to get involved, visit: FirstDescents.org