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Caring for others by caring for the Earth


The wide sands of Omaha Beach remain empty and still undeveloped today, allowing visitors to imagine World War II’s D-Day invasion. Derek Matina, a history buff on a Mendon High School trip to Normandy, France, envisioned even more. 

His grandfather, Donald Matina, had been a seventeen-year-old soldier among the 34,000 American troops who stormed the beach. Of the three D-Day beaches invaded, Omaha saw the greatest loss of life, with more than 2,000 troops killed as they struggled through shallow water under German fire. Frank Fantanza, his grandfather on his mother’s side, also served in WWII.

“My grandfather, only a couple years older than [I am now], had been there,” says Matina, who scooped up a handful of sand from that beach. When he gave his grandfather the sand, he asked him to talk about an experience the older man seldom mentioned. 

“My grandfather was so excited. He started telling me stories, amazing things,” Matina says. “But he wasn’t unique. There were so many others.”

Along with his love of history, Matina is also concerned about the environment. When he went to festivals, he “saw people throwing out a lot of bottles.” 

When Matina enrolled in Le Moyne College in Syracuse, he brought along a business plan for “5 Cents for Freedom.” 

“It wasn’t that good,” Matina says, laughing. “I wanted to create care packages for vets” funded by bottle deposits from festival waste. He would show his commitment to veterans and promote green initiatives at the same time. 

Matina approached professor Magdoleen Ierlan, the marketing director in Le Moyne’s Madden School of Business, who was astounded to find a freshman with a business plan. 

“She looked at me like I had three heads,” says Matina, “But she liked the idea and said there was a lot more money out there and to go for scholarships rather than care packages.” Dr. Ierlan liked his idea so much, she now serves on the Sustainability for Scholarships (SforS) board of directors. Next, the dean of the business school awarded him a $3,000 grant and a $6,000 loan with repayment due at graduation. Matina paid it back within six months. 

And thus, on January 1, 2015, Sustainability for Scholarships was born. Along with collecting bottles, the nonprofit contacted businesses for donations in exchange for their name promoted on recycle containers placed at festivals. 

On Veterans Day of that same year, Matina awarded the first scholarship, in the amount of $1,111, a symbolic number that reflects the month and day of the holiday. 

After graduation, Matina returned to Rochester for its opportunities, but also because of family. “I’m a big Italian, and I didn’t want to be away from my family,” he says. 

One his first jobs was cashiering for Wegmans, so he applied again and started full-time in marketing and information systems. He added to his nonprofit’s board of directors and advisory board, found volunteers, and reached out to festivals and events—the Jazz Fest, Fairport Music Festival, the Summer Soul Festival on Parcel 5, and Rochester’s Holiday Market—until COVID closed it all down.

When the pandemic abated, Matina took off again at full speed. In Rochester, partners included large enterprises like Nazareth University and Wegmans; tech firms like CAD Dimensions; and a slew of smaller businesses, such as Pane Vino, Label 7, Native Eatery and Bar, and Fox Pest Control

“SforS applications are rolling,” says Matina and available to Monroe and Onondaga residents. “Scholarships are given on Veterans and Memorial Days. Those are the cadences,” adds Matina. “A rising tide lifts all boats. We want as many applicants as we can get.” 

To apply, veterans write a one-page essay to explain why they need a scholarship and show proof of enrollment in a college, university, or trade school that may offer certificates in mechanics or plumbing or electronics. “I don’t like transcripts. An A or F student might have been absent from a class because they had to work. I take a wholistic view.” 

“I’m always moved by how humble [the essays] are. They’re not trying to sell you. Some write ‘I know there’s someone who needs it more . . . they’re so selfless. No one thinks they deserve it.”

One vet was supporting a whole family and wanted a career change. Another recipient was Malcolm Keim, who started a business, Rainbow Camo. 

“He makes LGBTQ+–inspired soaps, candles, lotions, and sugar scrubs,” says Matina. “It’s super cool we were a step on the path of someone’s life and to see their accomplishments.” Matina emphasizes that “one hundred percent of donations goes to the scholarships, and corporate donors pay for operations,” which he keeps minimal. SforS does not rent an office, and Upstate Bottle Return stores the recycling containers with lettering that promotes his corporate donors. 

SforS has awarded scholarships to fourteen veterans and veteran dependents and collected more than 300,000 cans and bottles. 

When not growing the nonprofit, Matina works as brand product manager for Wegmans’ health and wellness along with its “private label for the baby” catalog. 

The baby catalog is especially apropos for Matina. He and his wife, Johannah, recently welcomed baby Adelaide to their home. 

Matina says he spends about ten hours a week on SforS. Its website describes plans to expand its scholarship range along I-90 from Buffalo to Albany and as far as Boston.

“My biggest goal is to find a way to increase our sustainability efforts, and recycling at Fringe Festival, CMAC, and Darian Lake bottles and cans. I want to increase our efficiency during collections. We hold to the highest standard. We don’t want to disappoint the events. We always get in early to empty the recyclers.” 

SforS now contends with a growing trend as festivals move toward selling draft beverages, but that won’t stop Matina. 

“Every contribution gets us closer to helping our heroes in each of these cities,” says Matina. Matina won’t stop finding ways to honor the people who preserve American democracy. It’s not hard to imagine that his ancestors Donald Matina and Frank Fantanza stand right behind him saluting his efforts. 

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