Teacher raises money to buy presents for school's more than 500 students
Jennifer Olawski shopped for and wrapped the presents too.
— -- More than 500 students at a New Jersey elementary school received Christmas presents this year thanks to a teacher who has raised nearly $5,000.
Students at Community Charter School of Paterson unwrapped their gifts on Monday after they each recited an affirmation pledge with their health and physical education teacher, Jennifer Olawski.
“I am amazing. I share, care, love and forgive. I am powerful, kind, unique and respectful,” begins the pledge that Olawski leads the students in daily.
Olawski, 31, spent more than two months fundraising, shopping and wrapping to make sure that every student at the school received a holiday gift.
She started the tradition last year when a first-grade student spoke about Christmas without any “sparkle in her eyes,” according to Olawski.
“I asked if she was getting excited for Christmas and she just looked at me with a blank face and said she didn’t care for Christmas because she never got presents,” Olawski recalled. “To her it was just a blank day.”
Olawski’s idea to buy a gift for just that one student turned into her writing Christmas cards for each of the school’s more than 500 students and then into buying each of those students a gift. She raised more than $2,500 on GoFundMe last year, enough to buy each student an art set.
This year, Olawski began fundraising just after Halloween and raised more than $4,700 from family and friends.
“All my family and friends just got really involved,” she said. “I was really shocked that so many people that weren’t really even able to give still gave.”
Olawski decided to purchase a slime kit for each student in first through fourth grades after hearing so many of her students talk about the must-have item. With the money left over, she also purchased every kid a coloring book and a hat-and-gloves set for winter.
She purchased an art set and coloring book for each of the school's 100 kindergarten students.
Olawski relied on the help of family and friends to purchase the gifts at stores across town.
"My sister and I went to the store and took 400 slime kits off the shelves and packed it all in our cars," Olawski recalled. "I do the aftercare program at the school, too, so I’d work from 8 to 6 and then go to stores."
She had to carry all the gifts to her walk-up apartment, where she stored them in her living room and held wrapping parties to get each gift wrapped.
When the students opened the gifts on Monday, there was screaming and tears of joy, according to Olawski.
“It’s a memory that these kids are going to have forever,” she said. “As an educator, yes I teach them health and wellness. But, to me, I feel like the most important thing to teach them is acts of kindness and giving -- and to show them that they’re cared for and loved.”
Around 87 percent of students at Community Charter School are eligible for free or reduced lunch, according to the school’s dean of students, Iver Peterson.
"I'm grateful," Peterson said of Olawski's efforts. "Just the looks on their faces, the joy, the excitement, the anticipation, it just speaks again to the person that Jen Olawski is."
He added, "Not everyone is able to bring that energy that she brings every day and to top it off with the kindness that she has within her and present this type of gift-giving to our entire student body -- I’m speechless.”
Olawski said seeing the students’ reactions as they opened their Christmas presents made the time-consuming effort “totally worth it.”
She said she feels like she has “no choice” but to continue the tradition next year.
“When I’m carrying hundreds of boxes upstairs to my apartment, I’m like, 'I don’t know,'" she said. "But seeing their faces and the emotion that came out of them, it was so overwhelming that of course I’m going to do it."
"I feel like it made such an impact."