June 27, 2011 12:00 PM

BRAD LUDDEN, 30

Denver

As a child growing up in Kalispell, Mont., Brad Ludden waited all year for summer. That’s when his beloved aunt Lori flew up from Phoenix to join his family in kayaking expeditions and on camping trips at nearby Glacier National Park. But those carefree days suddenly came to a halt when Lori was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 38. She underwent a double mastectomy and multiple rounds of chemotherapy, while Brad, then 12, and his family watched in disbelief. “I felt so helpless not being able to do anything for her,” recalls Ludden, now a world-class professional kayaker. “I wanted to make her smile again.”

Inspired by his aunt’s successful battle, in 2001 Ludden launched First Descents (first descents.org), a nonprofit that provides a free, weeklong outdoor adventure for small groups of young adults fighting cancer. Since then, the bachelor-who briefly dated actress Jennifer Love Hewitt a decade ago-and his staff have led nearly 1,000 campers on 65 kayaking or rock-climbing outings across North America. “After learning to kayak, I don’t think I’m weak anymore,” says Janet Liang, 24, who has leukemia but is currently in remission. “The camp taught me I still have strength.”

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