NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - It was hard to tell if the cheers of joy were for the mountains of wrapped gifts or Jen Olawski.
But if you ask the students at Livingston Elementary School, they'll tell you that when the curtain lifted in the auditorium, it was the sight of Ms. O - as they sometimes call her - that touched off their wild celebration.
"I almost cried when I saw her there," said Rey, a fourth-grader. "I was just so happy to see her."
Thanks to Olawski's efforts, the school held its second annual school-wide gift presentation Friday morning complete with cheering children, teachers shooting confetti everywhere and a gymnasium transferred into a festive winter wonderland that even dwarfed last year's event.
This year, the children got hats, gloves, a STEM-related gift, a slime-making kit and art kit with colored pencils. Local television stations were on hand to tape former New Brunswick football start-turned-Giants linebacker Jonathan Casillas as he gave Livingston students a talk about the importance of paying this sort of kindness forward.
Just as she did last year, Olawski. who teaches physical education and health, raised the $10,000 to pay for the gifts through a GoFundMe campaign. It took her about three months of planning to start the campaign, buy the gifts and wrap them. Considering she couldn't move more than a few steps inside the gym without a child running up to her with a giant hug, it was all worth it.
"You don't know where some of these kids come from in terms of some of their family life," she said. "Regardless if they get gifts at home or not, I think we should all experience this joy and this moment. And, I want them to know that one person can make a difference."
The biggest surprise was Olawski's appearance. Se switched schools before the start of this school years. The students didn't know if they were going to have another big Christmas event like last year.
Just a few years ago, Olawski was working at a small school in Paterson when she got the idea to crowdfund to buy her students gifts. She did the wrapping in the living room of her apartment. Her efforts have gotten bigger in the past few years. Last year, the event helped her earn the Department of Education as the Teacher of the Year in Middlesex County.
"For the kids, it's about feeling like somebody cares about them," said Board of Education member Patricia Sadowski. "I hope the takeaway for them is we care about them and we want the best for them and hopefully they'll be like Jonathan and give back. He is probably the best alum we have. He always gives back and he's always there for the kids."
The kids, however, were focused on going home and ripping open their gifts.
"I like the kid's art set," said Raziel, a fourth grader. "I like it because it includes everything you need for a portrait or whatever."