Tito’s Handmade Vodka has worked with First Descents, a nonprofit organization based out of Denver, Colorado that provides outdoor adventure programs for young adults impacted by cancer, for a few years now.
Like many of the relationships we've formed through Love, Tito's, this one started out quite simply—Tito’s supplied spirits for a fundraising party— and it evolved naturally from there. Josie Fox from Tito's Handmade Vodka met up with Becca Roher, the Marketing Manager from FD, at Wanderlust Festival in Squaw Valley to learn more about the organization, explore other ways to work with them, and get to the bottom of how and why it makes perfect sense for Tito’s to join forces with First Descents.
Can you tell me about First Descent’s mission?
Becca Rohrer: First Descents provides life-changing outdoor adventures for young adults (between ages 18 to 39) impacted by cancer. Beyond that— what we do is create communities. We connect people with their peers going through the exact same thing and help them defy their diagnosis and empower them with skills and confidence to go out and kayak, or surf, or rock climb beyond cancer. We empower them to discover, or remember, that not only are they physically capable of doing things they thought maybe they couldn't, following a cancer diagnosis, like kayaking down a Class 3 rapid but we also give them a community to do it with.
There's no explaining chemo, radiation, or drugs. This community just inherently understands one another, and it’s like nothing I've ever seen before in my life. It’s this bond almost like family. A trip with 15 strangers, and within 12 hours it's like they've known each other their whole lives. It's extremely powerful and truly based on the fact that they are going through this common experience.
Tell me about the name. What is a “First Descent”?
BR: First Descent is a kayaking term. Our founder, Brad Ludden, was a former pro kayaker whose aunt was diagnosed with cancer… and he started taking her on kayaking adventures, which is how the organization started.
A first descent describes the first trip down a river that's never been paddled before. It’s often applied when someone goes over a massive waterfall or a really intense river that no one's ever done. They are the first person to have ever tackled that river or that stretch of river, that waterfall. And the name works perfectly for our community. It's kind of a dual meaning in that this is literally a personal first descent for many of the folks on our trips. They've never kayaked. They're going on a river for the first time. So in the literal term, it is their first descent. But also it's their first descent out of cancer and into this really adventurous world that’s outside of who they normally are.
When and how did First Descents loop in with Tito’s?
BR: Finding Tito's was a really organic thing for First Descents. When I started at First Descents two and a half years ago, we were planning our biggest fundraiser of the year, the First Descents Ball, which brings in 400 to 500 people. In 2018 we raised close to $1 million at the event in one night! It’s a huge party, and we want it to feel like a party, so we reached out to Tito’s and connected with your Colorado sales rep, Danny. Since then, Tito’s has donated more and more product to our fundraisers!
So that’s how we organically started working with Tito’s as an organization. And then, from there, you reached out and had a super personal connection with First Descents.
Josie Fox: Right. My connection with First Descents started with my friend Amelia, who was a participant in the organization after she was diagnosed with cancer in her mid-twenties. She went on a few trips with FD, and I know the organization made a huge impact on her life. After she passed away in April of 2016, which was about two and a half years ago, her memory book was filled with pages from her First Descents community chronicling their adventures and climbing. In many of the photos from the last year of her life she was grinning down at the camera from high up on climbing walls.
She was always pretty athletic—hiking, running, cycling, we did yoga together (that was kind of our thing). She was always active, but she was never a rock climber. And the fact that she learned a whole new pursuit after her diagnosis on her trips with FD, and then could do it all the way through her illness with a community going through the same thing… well, wow.
I've wanted to do something for her, but I didn't really know what exactly. It was a very strange thing, losing a friend who I had known since I was born. We grew up next door to each other, and were in a baby playgroup together… which lasted far beyond babyhood. And then her timeline stopped and mine kept going and it was this very bizarre truncation of time. It took a while to process the pain of the loss and actually say, "How can I be productive and celebrate her life and help other people?"
Last year when I was here at Wanderlust in 2017, I decided I should start with something focused on the outdoors in honor of her adventurous spirit, her passion for the environment, mountains, exploring, and of course our shared yoga-class ritual. I talked to her mom, who I’ve known since I was born, and she was really thrilled and behind it.
And then I reached out to “Love, Tito’s,” our philanthropy program, and together we called you. And now here we are.
BR: We call that the ripple effect. Someone knows someone who had cancer or went on an FD program and heard them talk about the impact that it had on their life. That information and passion spread to friends and families, and it kind of grows from there. That's how we find a lot of our partnerships, especially the ones that are truly authentic, long-lasting and meaningful.
What about nicknames?
JF: I know everyone on your program has nicknames… Amelia’s was “IQ” because her group found out she was in Harvard Grad School. She joked about it and said they “I don’t know if they think it’s a high IQ or a low one, but at least I have one, I guess!”
BR: The idea of the nicknames has been around from the very beginning. On our first program in 2001, everyone got nicknames. One of our core values is this element of humor and playfulness. Having a nickname helps reiterate that even though life has dealt a really crappy hand, they can still be playful and joyful and wear costumes on the river. But I think the other element is this idea that you're kind of starting over at our programs. The real you has cancer, and that becomes your identity— you're Becca. You're Josie. You're Jill, and you're so used to that. And what we want to do is take you out of your element and put you in a whole new situation where you're basically starting from scratch. We don't want you to feel like your bringing all of the baggage from home (for a week, at least). The nickname is your alter ego. A way to own a whole new identity.
JF: I know that the community you work with is young adults, and a normal part of young adult life is enjoying a cocktail or two, socializing with friends. But is it weird that we’re a vodka company and we’re working with an organization that exists because of cancer? Providing the spirits for a fundraiser makes perfect sense, but what about beyond that?
BR: I think it seems totally natural for us! As you said, we work with young adults, and spirits are part of many of their normal lives. But it's so much less about the fact that Tito's is a spirit company and that it’s just a cultural fit for First Descents. We look for partners who feel authentic and align with us. We never want to work with a product that doesn't mesh with what we do, and I think Tito's is a fit in that respect. We’re here at Wanderlust, where you’re working, but also learning to find balance and enjoy your own work community. We love that Tito's is behind something like Wanderlust, and supporting this idea of incorporating health and wellness into a realistic, fun lifestyle. Obviously, with an illness, health and wellness are crucial parts of our balance too, so we look for partners who share that.
JF: And this is just the beginning! I'm so excited to be a small part of spreading the wealth, in a way, and offering this opportunity to more and more people.
First Descents made Amelia feel so much less isolated and alone. It gave her a new passion and a whole new community.
BR: Yes, we call it a tribe because it's so much deeper than just friendship. It's a real community, it's thicker than blood.
Once you've done a program, you're part of the family, our volunteers, our staff, our participants—we’re all this massive tribe. There are 70,000 adolescents and young adults diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States. It’s a huge number, but our goal is to reach them all.
That’ll take a huge amount of awareness and growth and we need partnerships to help us get the word out. I think the hardest part is getting through to people and letting them know that this is an option for them. And that it's totally free. We provide everything. We provide chefs that cook healthy food for a week, and our volunteers do all the dishes. For a week, our participants get to step away from their lives and have no responsibility beyond learning to kayak or learning to rock climb. We take care of everything else. We want them to just feel like it’s a total vacation from the stress in their lives. A lot of these people are young parents and they're going through cancer but they're still raising children, or going to school, working, and paying medical bills. So for a week, you just wind down. You can take a break and step outside of yourself.
JF: It’s hard enough to be a young adult trying to figure out life, friends, relationships, work, what your purpose is here, and finding meaning.
BR: And then a cancer diagnosis is a wall that you slam into and suddenly life's on hold as you go through treatment and you have to do chemo, radiation. You’re in awful medical situations and dealing with your own mortality at an incredibly young age. An age when you thought life was just getting started. So, we’re here to do whatever we can to make it easier and provide a support system.
JF: Well, it means a lot to be able to support that mission and your goal. And it makes me feel like I’m doing at least something for Amelia, and for her family…
It’s pretty unique to work for a company, especially a spirits company, which encourages us, the employees, to support the things that mean something to us personally. To reach out and make a difference and do our part to make the world a better place, according to our definition of whatever that means. I’m really looking forward to the evolution of this relationship, and working with you and First Descents more!