CORNELIUS – Graduation is an event Hough High senior Matthew Botello wasn’t sure would come for him. Not prioritizing school, getting shot and later losing his best friend in a car wreck, it didn’t seem attainable.
But thanks to the help of teachers, staff, his mom Cynthia Villareal and renewed self-determination, Botello will walk across the stage with his peers June 14.
“He shows what it means to not give up,” Hough High Counselor Mary Towe said. “It definitely shows what you can accomplish if you invest in yourself for the long haul.”
Botello plans to attend Central Piedmont Community College this fall. But whatever he decides to do with his future, he has a tattoo with a daily reminder that “The World is Mine.”
The California native’s life took its first major turn Nov. 21, 2010, when he was 16 and a sophomore at Turning Point Academy.
“I was at a friend’s house, and he was playing around with a shotgun,” Botello said, adding his requests to put it away were ignored. “I heard a pop, and he lost control of the gun.”
The shell split in two – one piece went in Botello’s hand, up his arm and hit his lung before coming out his back. The other grazed his neck.
In and out of consciousness, Botello remembers being taken to Carolinas Medical Center where he remained for more than a month. During the time, he had several surgeries and 40 staples put his chest as doctors tried to stop internal bleeding and infection.
During the first five days, he was kept in an induced coma. His parents and four siblings visited as often as they could. His closest friend, Irving Lopez, talked to him, holding his hand and telling him he was going to make it.
“It was the day I woke up from my coma,” Botello said. “When you are in a coma, you can hear people and you have dreams about them.”
Two weeks in the hospital, doctors said they couldn’t save his arm.
“I wasn’t too happy,” he said when he heard the news, but was grateful just to be alive.
When he was released from the hospital, he suffered some pain, but learned to carry on daily life with one arm as best as he can.
Initially, he returned to Turning Point Academy, but it was too much all at once.
“I was not mentally ready. I had a breakdown,” he said, and left for the rest of the school year. Considered failing his sophomore year and already struggling academically prior to the accident, “I lost hope and gave up on myself,” he said.
He joined Hough High School in fall 2011.
“It was still iffy,” he said of going back. “I was afraid staff would give up on me.”
But they didn’t. Two staff members who gained his trust and made an impact were school counselors Towe and Joseph Williams.
“Each of us saw the potential to [graduate] and saw the potential he didn’t,” Towe said. “He appears to be a tough guy when you learn about his back story, but there is a young man who can do a lot of good.”
Towe kept after him and explained what it would take to get to graduation, which he said no one had done before. But the attitude change didn’t come right away.
Botello said Lopez kept asking when he was graduating and, as his best friend, said he was going to be there. But Lopez was killed in a car wreck Dec. 15, 2012.
“I got the call at 4 a.m.,” Botello said. “I was supposed to be in the car, but I missed his call. I took it as a life lesson to live every day as if it’s your last.”
Towe agreed that it had an eye-opening effect on him.
“When he came back again, we saw the focus on school and his attitude change at that point,” she said. “It wasn’t all of a sudden. But it meant more to him.”
To make up for missing credits, Botello has been taking classes at Hough as well as doing online coursework. Botello said he is looking forward to June 14 not for himself, but as a celebration for his mom, who has supported and stood by him.
“We are very proud of him,” Towe said. “He has no idea how proud I am and several others are of him.”