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2 Million Mudders Fundraising Feature: Meet the Scientist with “Mud for Brains”

By Matt Alesevich | 05. August 2015


In honor of 2 Million Mudders crossing our finish line, throughout the month of August, we'll be highlighting the personal fundraising efforts of inspiring Mudders. To learn more about running and raising for charity, visit our official 2 Million Mudders page.

When you hear Jeremy Richman's story, you might assume he's become pessimistic toward humanity. On December 14, Jeremy’s 6-year-old daughter, Avielle, was one of 20 children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

But Jeremy doesn’t want to talk about hate. He wants to talk about compassion. He doesn’t want sympathy, he wants change.

This past February, Jeremy, a two-time Mudder and counting, left his full-time job as a scientist to direct his undivided efforts to the charity that bears his daughter’s name: The Avielle Foundation.

TMHQ recently caught up with Jeremy to learn about his foundation and how his Tough Mudder team, Mud for Brains, is helping him turn scars into stars.

Let’s first talk about the foundation’s namesake. What was your daughter like?

She was a real special spitfire. She loved stories and everything in her life was a story. She was realizing that her life was filling in chapters, and she had stories to tell. She had a good imagination and was very physical. She liked superheroes and super powers. She had a great spirit of adventure, always eager to try new things. She was really into names. Her name was unique, so she always had to tell people how to say it and spell it. She was a very bright spirit, and we miss her more everyday.

How soon after the tragedy did you decide to take action?

In one or two days after the murders, we knew we’d do something about brain health. We want to move away from the use of the word “mental” and the invisible world of mental health. There’s lots of shame and  stigma associated with all things mental - they carry baggage and imply character flaws. We need to change that. We want to play to our strengths as scientists and move to a visible world of brain health - a world that promises hope and prevention.

What were the beginning stages like for the foundation?

We started traveling around the country in January of 2013. Everyone would say “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” While we appreciate the sentiment, ironically, they are imagining it. The horror is imagining it. We want people to imagine it, as terrible as that sounds. That’s our tagline: You Can Imagine. You need to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. No empathy means no compassion and no action. On the brighter side, it is our imagination that sets us free to make tomorrow better than yesterday.

This is now your full-time job. How are you getting the foundation off the ground?

We are all grassroots. This wasn’t started with a million dollar endowment. My name might be Richman, but that’s completely ironic. We go out and spread the message that through understanding brain health and community engagement we can prevent violence and build compassion. Brain science is the least explored of all the sciences. We know more about the moon and the ocean floors than we do about what’s between our ears. We need to make that invisible world visible.

The Richmans: Jeremy, Avielle and Jennifer.

So where are funds being directed?

Part of the funds are going to funding brain science research to understand the risks that lead one to engage in violence and the protective factors that lead to compassion in a real scientific way, like what are biomarkers and predictors for being violent and what are the protective factors that lead to compassion. We are giving money to kickstart those studies.

Who are you partnering with in this initiative?

We have a science advisory board made up of pioneers of violence research from Duke, Yale, UPenn, the Mind Research Network and the National Institute of Mental Health. They will help us determine where the money is best spent. There’s little to no funding to understand violence. Violence is something we react to instead of looking to prevent.

I consider Tough Mudder a crucible event - one that you're going to come out changed.

We are looking to educate everyone we can: Congress, Girl Scouts, criminal justice programs, Rotary Clubs, graduate students, high schools, parents, teachers, health care providers - the everyday citizen.

In the coming years, what are some goals of the foundation?

Within five years, we need to raise seed money from people willing to support the cause. We need to be in the millions of dollars so we will be in existence 10 and 20 years from now. We’re seeking grants and angel donors, and we can name research grants that we’re giving out in a donor's name.

So when did Tough Mudder come on the radar?

A good friend of mine, Dave Stowe, had done around four to five Mudders. He’s very athletic and into alternative styles of fitness. He said, "It’s the most fun you’re going to have working so hard." He encouraged me to do something every year that scares me, whether it's a marathon or giving a speech. I consider Tough Mudder a crucible event - one that you’re going to come out changed.

Team Mud for Brains at Tough Mudder New England.

How did your team “Mud for Brains” come about?

Dave said he wanted to help raise money and said we should do a Tough Mudder together. He came up with the team name. He thought Tough Mudder was a real challenge that supported my philosophy of growth and education and physically and mentally building yourself up. Two years ago at Tough Mudder New England, we had a 10-person team. In 2015, 25 people signed up, including an 8-year-old Mini Mudder, a childhood friend of Avielle's. A team out in San Diego wants to run [Tough Mudder SoCal] this year and run as team Mud for Brains. We’re absolutely coming back in 2016.

Why Tough Mudder?

Coming together as a community to overcome obstacles is a great metaphor for life. Even if something is difficult or complicated or scary, when you approach it bravely and with focus, anything is surmountable.