Jennifer Olawski, a physical education and health teacher in New Brunswick and the 2019-2020 Middlesex County Teacher of the Year raised more than $10,000 to provide toys for each child at her school.
The program, now in its fourth year, began when Olawski was a teacher in Paterson. She asked a young student if they were excited about the upcoming holiday season. The child replied that the holidays weren’t special to her because she had never received a Christmas present. Olawski mobilized her colleagues and her community and raised $3,000 that first year, which provided every student in her school with a gift.
Beginning in September, Olawski starts the fundraising process. She goes door-to-door, solicits funds from friends, colleagues, parents, neighbors, and businesses, culminating in a wrapping party. The presents are distributed the day before Christmas break, and Olawski includes a warm hat and gloves for each student.
“I think that this is a great way to show my students that there is good in the world and that I care about them,” Olawski said. “I think that the world is kind of broken and I just want to spread kindness. This is a big project, but to me it’s just a simple act of kindness that I’m doing.”
The media attention Olawski’s project has drawn more funders and even some celebrities. Former New York Giant Jonathan Casillas, who grew up in New Brunswick, volunteered to help. He happily handed out candy canes to students as they collected their presents.
Olawski, who recently transferred to the Paul Robeson Community School for the Arts, welcomes even more help. At her previous school, there were only 400 students. At Robeson, she will be working to provide more than 800 children with presents in 2020.
“Everywhere you go, there is a need,” Olawski said. “It’s important that we not become overwhelmed by that. Any little thing that we can do – any dollar we can donate – makes a difference.”
Olawski will be beginning the process of fundraising again in September.
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