Our series A More Perfect Union aims to show that what unites us as Americans is far greater than what divides us. In this installment, we went to Scotch Plains, New Jersey, to meet a group of former high school students who started a life-changing support group for a friend battling cancer.
Nearly two decades ago, a group of high school juniors gathered in a New Jersey garage to rally around their friend Rob Mattar as he was going through chemotherapy for testicular cancer. Now, the same close-knit circle of friends is inspiring high school students across the country to join in the fight against cancer.
“And Rob’s mom had reached out to us beforehand, just to say that Rob was starting to lose his hair and — he was feeling self-conscious about it,” Mattar’s friend, David Baumwoll said.
So the group came up with a plan to shave their heads to match their friend.
“So, people were, like, ‘are you doin’ it?’ And the next guy’s, like, ‘yes, I’m in.’ And then they’d do it. And then the next person’s, like, ‘do me next.’ And it just built this momentum,” Baumwoll said.
They took that momentum and started the Student Movement Against Cancer, or SMAC, club at their high school. More than 200 people showed up to the first meeting.
The club held events and provided emotional support to students affected by cancer. By senior year, they had raised more than $100,000 through fundraisers.
“It made me feel great,” Mattar said. “That immediate support helped me get through that stage.”
But amidst his diagnosis, Mattar’s father was also battling cancer. He and his father received chemotherapy alongside each other.
“It makes you feel better in a way about getting chemotherapy, because you’re with your father and you have that natural bond of, ‘well, this is terrible’ but we actually laughed about it,” he said.
While Mattar recovered, his father did not. He died during his freshman year of college.
Mattar said his mom remained strong despite having the two men in her life dealing with cancer at the very same time.
“I don’t know a stronger woman in the history of the world,” he said. “She was so brave. She put on her game face at a time when she probably, you know, really just wanted to probably go in a room and hide.”
During that difficult time, Rob said he found new meaning through his work with SMAC.
“We started a board of directors based on that original crew of people, that — the people who who were part of it from the beginning, and — and started to dream again about what it could be,” Baumwoll said.
Nearly 20 years later, the group of friends eventually ended up back where it all began — the garage. But this time, with kids in tow: and a new generation of future SMAC leaders. Today, there are 18 SMAC chapters across the Northeast, and the organization has raised more than two million dollars to fight cancer.