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"Out Living It" Mantra Attributed to Success of First Descents

Top Nonprofits for 2017 include: First Descents, Cottonwood Institute and Denver Kids Inc.


When run like businesses, nonprofits have the power to shape-shift their communities for the long haul, impacting people's lives for the better with clear vision and purpose. Read and watch on to understand the missions and moments that have defined First Descents, Denver Kids Inc. and Cottonwood Institute.



First Descents (FD) provides free, life-changing outdoor adventure programs and community creation for young adults impacted by cancer. Started in 2001 as a single week-long kayaking program for 12 participants, it has grown to include more than 100 programs serving more than 1,200 cancer survivors annually.

The primary activities are whitewater kayaking, climbing and surfing. Local adventure communities broadened the activities to include mountain biking, backpacking, indoor climbing and stand-up paddle boarding. 

Denver boasts First Descents' largest and most active local adventure community, with more than 400 FD alumni and recently diagnosed cancer patients. FD partners with Rocky Mountain Cancer Center, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Grillo Health Information Center and Vail Valley Medical Center to identify patients who seek the healing power of adventure and community.

Experiences are facilitated by highly trained staff and inspired volunteers, many of whom are professional outdoor guides with adaptive sports backgrounds and success is measured across a series of psychological, socio-emotional and physical metrics. 

Founder Brad Ludden attributes the success of First Descents to its "Out Living It" mantra.

"Everything we do as an organization is centered on helping young adults impacted by cancer defy their diagnoses and fully embrace (Out Living It) as an ongoing part of their lives," he says. "Our brave and beautiful participants, devoted staff and generous supporters believe strongly in what that stands for."



Denver Kids supports the academic success of low-income kids with strong, supportive relationships. The professional Educational Counselors work one-to-one with 1,250 K-12 students in 144 Denver Public Schools (DPS) to keep them engaged and on track to high school graduation. Educational Counselors also meet with teachers, school administration, coaches and therapists. In DPS, students who live near or below the poverty line had a 60 percent graduation rate in 2015 that rose to nearly 75 percent among students served by Denver Kids.


Cottonwood Institute (CI) connects underserved public school students in Denver and Boulder to the outdoors and empowers them to take action to improve their schools, the community and the environment for future generations.

In 2016, CI delivered 32 programs, served nearly 400 students, logged more than 18,000 program contact hours and recorded more than 6,700 service-learning project hours through its core educational programs. In one recent project, a group of CI middle school students from STRIVE Prep addressed the food desert issue in its Denver Westwood neighborhood by raising money for fruit trees and planting them at a neighborhood urban farm.

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Nora Caley

Nora Caley is a freelance writer specializing in business and food topics.

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