First Descents Adventure Nonprofit Rock Climbing

Giving Help from The Ends of The Earth

An interview with First Descents program director, Mackenzie McGrath

Interview by Jeremy Lux, article written by Eric Z. Gasa

Mackenzie McGrath knows a thing or two about caring for others. It’s a trait of hers that has whisked her off to foreign countries and refugee camps while working with the USAID. There is gratification with helping others around the world, but McGrath would find her calling in life a little bit closer to home when her brother was suddenly diagnosed with cancer.

It was a sobering moment for her and one that would change the trajectory of her life and career forever. Today, she is the director of programs at First Descents, a non-profit dedicated to providing life-changing adventures for young adults impacted by cancer and other medical conditions.

For the latest episode of the Life in Motion podcast, Jeremy Lux chats with McGrath on her time with the USAID, globe-trotting, human mortality, and helping others live the best life they can.

Before she hopped from continent to continent, McGrath was raised on the sunny beaches of Miami until her family relocated to rural Iowa when she was 12. But it wouldn’t take long for her to get traveling. After college, she spent roughly a decade overseas in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. This time spent abroad molded McGrath into the person she is today.

First Descents Adventure Nonprofit Kayaking

In New Zealand, McGrath worked at a vineyard, a rock-climbing gym, and a pizza parlor. But it was her interactions with migrant workers at the vineyard that stuck with her most.

“There were a lot of migrants from Southeast Asia, and I got to listen to their stories of trying to find work abroad to send remittances back to support their families back home,” she says. “I became intrigued with the idea of working in an industry with a social impact, something philanthropically-oriented that was connected to something larger than myself and my own domestic experiences.”

This brush with humanitarianism would propel McGrath all over the world, volunteering in UN refugee camps in Palestine, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Kenya.

“It was certainly eye-opening and enlightening to see the difference between what people were struggling with versus life in the West,” she says. While also abroad, McGrath spent time skiing, biking, and rock climbing across exotic locales.

First Descents Adventure Nonprofit Skiing

That is until her older brother was diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer. It was a moment that stopped McGrath in her tracks, effectively ending her time in the foreign service. She returned to the States to be with her brother and help him in any way. It was during this time that she heard of First Descents via a friend who was working with the org. The two were instantly hooked on their mission.

“My brother was so young and in his early 30s. He felt so alienated and isolated, essentially fighting for his life and now here was a place with some common ground. A community that he could turn to,” says McGrath.

McGrath’s brother was accepted by First Descents to attend a kayaking program but unfortunately never made the trip; he sadly passed away two years after his diagnosis. After the loss, McGrath was heartbroken but saw hope in the group that had promised her brother such an amazing opportunity. She finally found what she was looking for in First Descents and has never looked back.

In essence, First Descents brings young adults who have been affected by cancer into an inclusive, and confidence-building outdoor environment. There they can learn how to rock climb, kayak, and so much more. McGrath calls it “adventure-based healing.”

First Descents Adventure Nonprofit Mountain Biking

Being a young adult with cancer is hard enough just as you experience your peers getting their lives started. The way McGrath sees it, First Descents not only builds a community of hope and excitement but gives folks a shot at normalcy. 

“Imagine being a 22-year-old sitting in a chemo chair, looking out the window and thinking, ‘Oh my God, I wish I could be out there.’ Then a social worker or nurse introduces you to First Descent and says, ‘Hey this is a great option for you,’” she says.

One of McGrath’s favorite memories from the program was during one of her first weeks. McGrath and her group were camping along the Rogue River in Oregon when one of the participants, a DJ, broke out his turntables and held a dance party in the middle of the forest. Who said dancing couldn’t be part of the healing process?

Whether she’s in the occupied West Bank or the Pacific Northwest, McGrath is most at home when she’s helping others.  A compassionate heart is often the fullest.


To hear more about Mackenzie McGrath’s time in the USAID, her rock climbing experiences, or how First Descents is giving back to frontline health workers be sure to catch her full interview on the Life in Motion Podcast on Apple Podcast and Spotify. You can also learn more about First Descents, their mission, and how you can volunteer at their official website 

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