EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The school community has rallied around paraprofessional Matthew Douglas, who has a debilitating kidney disease. At the Nov. 29 Egg Harbor Township Board of Education meeting, his sister-in-law said the family is deeply grateful.

Douglas went on medical leave in May after being hospitalized with severe kidney problems. He is now on dialysis every day, spending eight or nine hours a night on the machine at home. A kidney transplant could change his life, but for now, he can’t work and has little energy.

Douglas attended the most recent school board meeting, along with family members, all wearing green “Team Douglas” T-shirts. It was his wife’s sister, Marlee Ernst, who went to the podium to talk about the Miles for Matt fundraiser, which is underway through most of December.

“I just want to let you know about something amazing that is going on at the Miller School in his name right now,” Ernst told the board, the school administration and the residents attending the meeting.

Last year, two teachers had T-shirts made to help support Douglas, she said.

“This year, Mrs. Cottelli, the teacher that Matt was supposed to be working with, put together a fundraiser called Miles for Matt before she ever even met him in person. But she met him through the stories that the children told her about how great he was and how much they miss him.”

Teacher Cheri Cottelli and her fifth-grade students helped organize the fundraiser, in which participants pay a $10 sign-up fee and vow to walk a mile every day. The walks can take place anywhere, at any time, and participants post photos to social media.

The walks began on Thanksgiving and are set to continue through Dec. 26. A Facebook page was established where participants can sign up, and Ernst said 80 people are already walking.

She said the students are gaining valuable experience and use the fundraiser in their lessons.

“They’re making posters. They’re adding up how much money they’ve raised for Matt and my family to get us through this time, which is quite fantastic,” Ernst said.

Later in their lives, the students might use the skills they are learning if someone important to them needs help, she noted.

“At 9 years old, they’re putting together a fundraiser for someone they know and that they love. I wanted to share that with the administration and the board,” she said. “EHT pride is very true and real in our school.”

District Superintendent Kimberly Gruccio said Team Douglas is an excellent idea.

“Matt, first of all, we’re with you. We support you. Our thoughts and prayers for you. You’ll be good. We’re all behind you,” she said. “We may be walking in the early morning or late at night, but we’re there for you, Matt.”

After the meeting, most of the board members approached Douglas to offer support and encouragement.

Douglas said he has only worked for the district for a short time, but he loves the job and wants to get back to work, and that can’t happen until he receives a kidney transplant. He is on a waiting list, but there is no way to know when a donor could come through.

Douglas, 27, was diagnosed with a rare disorder called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, or FSGS, when he was 22. It is reportedly one of the leading causes of kidney failure. 

“It’s just kind of progressively gotten worse,” he said.

In May Douglas reached a turning point, and he has been on medical leave since. He said he has little energy or strength, and the financial impact has been severe.

Douglas was hired at the Davenport school to work one-on-one with a student, but was set to move to the Miller School to stay with the boy to which he was assigned. He said his wife and her mother also work in the district.

“I love my job working at the school,” Douglas said. “The kid I work with is wonderful. He’s really my inspiration to try to get back, and to get this transplant done and over with so I can get back and work with him.”

While the financial help could be important, Douglas said part of his motivation is to raise awareness about kidney failure and its impact. He said the support has meant a lot.

“The amount of community respect and the love that I’ve received from Davenport, from Miller, just throughout EHT has just been beyond wonderful,” Douglas said.

The fundraiser runs on the honor system, and participants can walk at the mall, on the beach or boardwalk, through the nature reserve or anywhere they want. Douglas asked that those walking post images to the group Facebook page.

“It’s an incentive to get more people active, especially the kids,” he said.

Cottelli said she was inspired by a fundraiser for the daughter of a high school friend that was arranged along similar lines. Every time she walked, she said, she thought of her friend’s daughter. 

The walking helps the staff and students stay active, she said, and there is no overhead or cost to set it up. By the time she was interviewed, there were about 95 people signed up, including Douglas’ friends and relatives around the country.

“They’re walking a mile in Ohio or there walking a mile in Kentucky, and it doesn’t really matter where they are. It’s really neat the way this brings people together,” Cottelli said. 

For information see Miles for Matt on Facebook. Checks made payable to “Miller Renaissance” can be sent to Cottelli in Room C-104 or mailed to Dr. Joyanne D. Miller School, c/o Cheri Cottelli, Miles for Matt, 2 Alder Ave., Egg Harbor Township, NJ 08234.

Stay informed! Sign up to receive top headlines from Atlantic County delivered to your inbox.