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04/09/2019 03:28 PM

Westbrook Bottle Drive Turns Nickels into Large Donations

Jennifer Curley arrives at Big Y in Old Saybrook to redeem a van full of bottles and cans donated to Bottle It Up! by the Lee Company. Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News

Five cents might not be much. But a whole lot of nickels over a few years can amount to tens of thousands of dollars.

When Matthew Scotella’s former 4th-grade teacher succumbed to cancer, Scotella’s mother, Jennifer Curley, suggested he could turn his grief into something positive. His family started collecting bottles to raise money for cancer research and from there, the effort blossomed.

To date, their organization, Bottle It Up!, has exchanged Connecticut redeemable cans and bottles for $38,000 in donations to Smilow Cancer Hospital’s Closer to Free campaign to fund cancer research. And from Monday to Saturday, April 22 to 27, the third Bottle It Up! can and bottle drive will take place at Westbrook Town Hall, culminating in an event on Saturday, April 27 with food and music. Everyone who brings redeemable bottles or a ticket from a redemption machine will be entered into a free drawing for prizes.

Scotella’s teacher Joanne Murray had become ill while he was in 4th grade; her students learned that she’d died during his 5th-grade year.

“The discussion became difficult,” Curley said. “Someone he really looked up to had died from this.” It was “hard, emotionally, to get his head around it. For everyone it is.”

The effort “really just started out so small—just me trying to come up with an idea for him, just our at-home bottles,” Curley said. “It became a dinnertime conversation. ‘We can call it something. We could have a website.’ It really just kind of rolled from there.”

Scotella himself was diagnosed with brain cancer when he was in 8th grade, but the collecting and donating were never about him, Curley explained.

“It’s not just about pediatric cancer,” she said. “It’s not just him. He would still be doing this and wanting us to do this as a family even if we weren’t so intimately touched with cancer as a family.”

The efforts of Scotella and his family have been supported by community volunteers, Westbrook schools, and businesses, and not just for the annual fundraiser. Anthem, the company where Scotella’s father Peter Scotella works, contributes to the effort. The family collects bottles whenever there’s an event at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding in Old Lyme, and they set up a table at Daisy Ingraham School’s annual Daisy Dash to collect runners’ used water bottles.

Every two weeks, Curley stops by her hairdressers’ salon to pick up redeemables, and on Fridays she drives her van to the Lee Company on Pettipaug Road to collect the cans and bottles put aside for her by its cafeteria staff.

“Some weeks I can go and it’s six or seven pretty big bags, some weeks 10 to 15 big bags. If I miss a will be a double week and it’ll be quite a few,” Curley said. “They’ve been great and they’re happy to do it.”

She then redeems the bottles, puts the money in a special checking account and, when the amount builds up, writes a check to Smilow.

“We really try to spread it around to different funds,” Curley said, noting the family has donated to gynecological, gastrointestinal, and pediatric cancer research, among others.

T-shirts, brochures, baseball caps, and promotional materials for the organization are all paid for by the family, sometimes by Curley’s parents. All money raised is donated to Smilow, said Curley.

Community member Jen Waldron first heard about Bottle It Up! when Matthew was being presented with a certificate of appreciation at a Board of Education meeting. She wanted to get involved and came up with the idea of the town bottle and can drive.

Waldron this year got her own employer, Unilever, to pitch in. The company’s Shelton office is holding a drive throughout April for employees, ending with a Bring Your Bottle to Work Day.

“The parents are just the most amazing parents you could ever meet,” Waldron said. “They are so dedicated to their children and finding a cure.

“There’s no one you know who doesn’t know someone who’s had cancer,” she added.

The Saturday, April 27 Bottle It Up! drive takes place at Westbrook Town Hall, 866 Boston Post Road, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Those interested in volunteering for the event can call Jen Waldron at 203-640-0741. For more information about Bottle It Up!, visit