By Jennifer Olawski
It’s a moment you only really ever think you would see in a movie. Tears of disbelief flowing down children’s faces, screams of joy, hundreds of hugs and not a dry eye in the room. It’s like Christmas morning, but only it isn’t quite Christmas yet. As hundreds of children quickly unwrap multiple presents, the room is filled with an incredible energy that seems to make all of your worries disappear.
Reason for the Season began five years ago when I was a health and physical education teacher in Paterson. It was mid-November and like always, our office door was open. The kids really enjoyed popping their heads in to say hello or to grab a snack from our snack drawer. However, this day was very different. A first-grader swung by the office to say hello to the physical education team.
Since it was almost Christmas, I asked if she was excited and ready to celebrate the holiday. Her blank eyes stared back at me with no reaction as she shook her head. I followed up with a question that changed everything. I asked her “Why not?” She shrugged her shoulders as she told me she doesn’t receive Christmas presents even though they do celebrate. My response was filled with empty words as I watched her walk back to her classroom.
The rest of the day, her response stuck with me. I had such a pit in my stomach. Growing up as a child, looking forward to presents on Christmas morning was one of the most exciting parts of the holiday! That evening I realized that she probably wasn’t the only child in this situation. Ever since this conversation, each year I raise money to purchase and fill U-Hauls with presents. With the community’s assistance, we wrap them for every student in the school.
Last year I was able to raise $10,000 to ensure all 450 students in Livingston Elementary School in New Brunswick received an educational STEM gift, an art kit, a toy, and winter hats and gloves! Each year, I also invite some of my former Paterson students to assist me in passing out the gifts to my new students. The act of paying it forward really seems to bring them so much joy, and they look forward to helping out each year. This event has been seen on ABC, News 12, Fox, Good Housekeeping magazine and many other news outlets.
This year, I am collecting for a total of 800 students in my current school, Paul Robeson Community School for The Arts, which is double the usual goal! Given we are in the middle of a pandemic, the challenge of how to still make it happen this year remains on my mind daily. With all of the challenges we are currently facing in such chaotic times, the one thing that keeps me going is something my current principal, Mrs. Robinson, once said in a faculty meeting: “Trials and tribulations build character.” So with this I remain hopeful and excited to ensure all 800 of our students will be gifted with much more than just a present, but with an act of kindness that they will remember forever.
My hope is to inspire other educators and districts to come together to ask our students more questions that will lead us to ideas such as this-ideas to ensure our students understand they are cared for and loved and to instill kindness in their hearts. Showing acts of kindness to our youth not only leaves a lasting impression on them, but can encourage them to pay it forward in some way. I think the world needs more of that. The Go Fund Me page will be open until the first week of December at Gofundme.com/ReasonfortheSeason2020
Jennifer Olawski is the 2019-20 Middlesex County Teacher of the Year and a health and physical education teacher at Paul Robeson Community School For The Arts in New Brunswick Public Schools. Olawski can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org