Teen turns tragedy into treasure
Matthew’s journey from raising funds for cancer research to fighting his own cancer battle — and back again
EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD MATTHEW SCOTELLA was just 11 when he learned that his beloved fourth-grade teacher had passed away from pancreatic cancer. Matthew was devastated. She had been one of those rare, life-changing teachers — the kind you always remember.
“He couldn’t understand,” says Jennifer Curley, Matthew’s mom. “She was such a good person — how could this happen? Why is this such a terrible disease? He asked all the questions any fifth grader would ask.”
Jennifer couldn’t answer his questions, but she wanted Matthew to know that tragedy could be counterbalanced by something good. She glanced around their kitchen and noticed a bag full of bottles and cans waiting to be redeemed at the supermarket — and she had a great idea.
“I suggested that we collect and redeem bottles and cans and donate the money to Smilow Cancer Hospital for research to honor his wonderful teacher,” Jennifer says.
Matthew loved the idea and created a motto for the effort: “Bottle It Up! — Let’s put a cap on cancer, and find a cure!”
He started collecting bottles and cans from friends and relatives. When he brought his idea to his school, students and their families began bringing in their bottles, cans, and redemption coupons.
Matthew’s dad, Peter, and younger brothers Andrew and James joined in, and over the next couple of years, Bottle It Up! took off. The family redeemed thousands of bottles and cans, and all the proceeds were donated to Smilow.
The fight turns personal
And then, there was an almost unbelievable coincidence.
After working so hard to come to terms with the tragedy of his teacher’s cancer, Matthew, only 13 years old, was diagnosed with brain cancer.
A terrible 10 months followed. Matthew had major brain surgery at YNHH, six courses of chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. “He came out the other side free of cancer cells,” Jennifer says. “But he still has symptoms most days — nausea and dizziness. It stinks!”
Matthew’s brush with a life-threatening cancer and its lasting effects brought new urgency to Bottle It Up! “It’s always been about all cancers, all people suffering,” says Jennifer. “When Matthew was diagnosed, it just amplified the need.”
So the Scotellas decided to amplify the impact of Bottle It Up! In 2017, they added an intensive, week-long community bottle drive in Westbrook to their ongoing year-round collection efforts.
A local cleaning company donated a dumpster, and the Town Hall allowed it to be placed in its parking lot. The Scotella family created brochures, sponsorships, and t-shirts. And the word spread.
Annual Westbrook Tradition
That first drive was an amazing success. Family, friends, and supporters helped sort, bag, and redeem just over 30,300 donated bottles and cans, one by one.
The bottle drive has become an annual community event, growing each year. Last spring, hundreds of supporters donated a record-breaking 69,000+ bottles and cans.
Since Matthew and Jennifer dreamed up Bottle It Up!, they’ve raised more than $77,000 (and still counting) for cancer research. “It gives us an opportunity to express how deeply we care about Smilow Cancer Hospital and curing cancer,” he says.
And to turn a tragedy into a triumph. Thank you, Matthew!
Bottle It Up! with Matthew—and put a cap on cancer! Put your used bottles and cans to work fighting cancer. You can help find a cure without spending a penny! Visit bottleitup.org for all the details.