Biking coast to coast isn’t on the post-graduation summer agenda for many JMU seniors, but biology major Navid Attayan isn’t your average senior.
In October, Attayan launched ProJeKT 3000, an eight-week bike trip from Virginia to California, with the intentions of raising money and awareness for pediatric cancer with a focus on neuroblastoma. Neuroblastoma accounts for 15 percent of deaths caused by all pediatric cancers. Children diagnosed with this disease have a 50 percent chance of survival. He hopes to have raised $15,000 by the time he begins his trip in June.
“I don’t want to make it easy,” Attayan said about his upcoming trip.
After Attayan spent three summers researching treatments for the disease in the National Institutes of Health’s lab, he decided to do something big.
“It’s one thing to hear on the news what cancer is all about,” Attayan said. “It’s another thing to be in the circle and see the children, the families and the doctors. Lack of funding is the No. 1 problem in the lab.”
Attayan says he was particularly “touched and inspired to do something more” because of Hayley Kudro, a patient who passed away after a two year battle with neuroblastoma.
“Neoroblastoma gets shoved under the blanket of larger cancers like breast cancer, lung cancer and prostate cancer,” Attayan said. “People need to realize kids get cancer, too.”
According to Attayan, NIH is a last hope for patients. He took his passion for biking and his passion for the cause and mixed them together, setting a goal to raise more money for research. The capitalized P, J, K and T in ProJeKT 3000 each stand for the last name of a patient or family who inspired him. The K represents Hayley Kudro.
“Just because many of us are born with a better probability to survive and live does not excuse us from making ourselves blind to the duties we owe to humanity,” Attayan said. “This is the reason I started ProJeKT 3000. Because I am a firm believer that individuals, through small actions, can make a huge impact on their societies if they just stand up and take action.”
With the help of Gamma Sigma Sigma and JMU’s American Medical Student Association, the cause has taken off. After only one month on Facebook, ProJeKT 3000’s page surged beyond 1,000 “likes,” and Attayan says approximately 400 blogs around the world are talking about the cause.
“I’ve never met someone so passionate about something,” said Heidi Jenkins, a freshman nursing major. “He’s so giving, and not just with the foundation. Anything he can do for you, he will. He makes you want to help him.”
Jenkins isn’t the only one who sees how giving Attayan is. By February, hundreds of people had nominated him to be a CNN Hero for Championing Children.
“If we get this it could be the big break for the project to go nationwide,” Attayan said. “I don’t want the stories to be about me, I want them to be about the project.”
Just four months after creating the cause, Attayan raised over $1,700 and was able to make ProJeKT 3000 an official nonprofit, gaining sponsorship from national names like The North Face and Monster Energy Drink, as well as local sponsorship from the Shenandoah Bicycle Company.
Attayan also started selling purple bracelets for $2 that say “ProJeKT 3000” on half the bracelet and “Kids Get Cancer Too” on the other half. The Shenandoah Bicycle Company sells them in store as well. The money from the bracelets, like all the money ProJeKT 3000 collects, is completely nonprofit and goes directly to the cause.
What started out as a one-man project has developed into something much bigger. A collaborative team of student-run committees works with Attayan at JMU to help with public relations, fundraising and organizing programs.
Attayan will set off on his bicycle journey with only five bags. One bag sits behind the bike seat and the other four bags sit on racks installed on both sides of the tires. In these bags are only essentials: a week’s worth of clothes, spare parts for tires, a camp stove, three days’ worth of food, lots of water, a tent, sleeping bag and pad, pump, camera, small laptop and Verizon Wireless PC card, med kit, satellite phone with an emergency beacon and GPS capabilities, solar charger and pepper spray.
Along the way, he plans to spend only one night a week in a hotel. He wants to sleep primarily at campsites or just camp out in random places along the road to “add to the excitement and fear.”
But Attayan’s biggest fear is having his bike and gear stolen.
“I’m doing something this big for a good cause. I can’t start this project and go across the country thinking people are out to get me.”
His bike, which is a Surly “Long Haul Trucker,” is a high-quality touring bike.
“It’s designed with a unique geometry so it can be comfortable for long-term rides,” said Shenandoah Bicycle Company employee David Lee. “It’s super durable and stable so riders can carry all their bags.”
According to Lee, who sold the bike to Attayan at the Shenandoah Bicycle Company, it costs around $1,100 and will “last forever.”
To prepare for the strenuous 55-mile a day ride, Attayan has a strict exercise regimen. Three times a week he goes to UREC to train, first running five miles as fast as he can and then getting on the elliptical for one to two hours.
“I’m in pain every day,” he said.
And for hills he goes to the Shenandoah National Park on Saturdays to “bike my ass off all day.”
He doesn’t anticipate a lot of pain on the actual trip. Attayan is Red Cross-certified and capable of “patching himself up.” As for things like saddle sores, he has a special Brooks bike seat.
“Let’s just say there’s comfort where comfort is needed,” Attayan said with a chuckle.
Attayan will deviate from the popular TransAmerica Bike Trail to include six cancer research sites, national parks and big cities. He plans to document his journey and film for a future documentary.
“I want to tell the kids there are people out there who care,” Attayan said. “It’s their chance to get their stories heard, and for me to show a side of cancer that nobody sees.”
Abby Perlin, JMU’s AMSA co-fundraising chair, believes it’s a cause with great urgency.
“When you see the kids with no hair, hooked up to a million machines and saying ‘I want to be a pilot,’ how can you not donate?”