NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Jen Olawski's eyes welled with tears of joy.
The physical education and health teacher at Livingston Elementary School watched as the 450 or so students in the school opened their Christmas gifts this past December.
Olawski took the $10,000 or so she raised through a crowdfunding site and bought each kid a winter hat and gloves, a toy and an educational toy - either a model volcano or a robotic hand.
There was happiness on the faces of the children, some of whom wouldn't have otherwise received a gift for the holidays.
Olawski, who was recognized by the state Department of Education as the Teacher of the Year in Middlesex County at a dinner last week, says this is exactly why she went into teaching some 10 years ago.
"I just feel like that teachers can reach so many different students over the course of the years, that was just something I wanted to do, reach as many kids as possible and have that bond with the kids," she said. "I tend to find a lot of the kids that struggle in school, somehow they form a relationship with me rather quickly. I'm always the one they come and talk to and calm them down if they're upset by something. I think that's a beautiful thing because some of these kids, we don't know what their home life is like. We don't know what they're going through. If they have someone they can talk to and rely on, I think that's super important even at a young age."
Olawski, who will be starting her second full year at Livingston next month, was recognized at a celebration at Jackson Memorial High School. She was introduced to the crowd, was given a certificate and had her picture taken with the other 20 teachers honored that night.
Gov. Phil Murphy issued a statement about Olawski and the other teachers, saying "These teachers reflect the exemplary quality of educational leadership that we see throughout our state."
Olawski said that part of the reason that she connects with some kids because she knows what it's like to deal with what she called "a lot of stuff" as a kid. Her parents divorced when she was 10. She was raised by a single mother.
She said she was never a straight-A student, but found a place to fit in on the soccer and basketball teams.
Each day as a teacher, however, gives her a chance to make a difference in a kid's life.
"The best part of being a teacher is watching them grow and watching their character traits expand for the better and witnessing them having a positive experience with something and laugh and smile and having fun," she said. "They're kids. In phys ed, we do a lot of team building and a lot of stuff that requires social-emotional learning. To me, that's my favorite part of teaching. That's the main component of what I focus on. Seeing them help each other and if another child is struggling with something and they step up and say, 'Here, let me show you how it's done,' being little mini-teachers sort to speak is really great. That really brings joy."