NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - For Shinelle Brown, 24, a secretary at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, it’s been tough balancing the holiday season’s growing price tag while raising her 3-year-old daughter. But this year, Rutgers’ Winter Wishes program has made the season a little less stressful.

Winter Wishes, an initiative of Rutgers University Programming Association (RUPA), provides presents for children in need in New Brunswick and the surrounding area, and hosts and annual December holiday party.

This year Brown and her daughter, Sha’naja Hamilton, attended the festivities for the first time. When Sha’naja received her first gift – a giant stuffed green octopus – the 3-foot toddler was so excited she ran halfway across the Douglass Campus Center auditorium squealing in delight before she realized there were other gifts to open. 

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Brown smiled and quietly watched as her daughter ripped off the wrapping paper.

“I work paycheck to paycheck,” Brown said, “and sometimes it gets really difficult with rent, so it’s wonderful to get help from a program like this. I’m so happy she’s enjoying herself.”

RUPA started Winter Wishes eight years ago as a community service outreach program.  During the fall the association asks local preschools to submit at least 60 student wishes. Gift items – which range from toys and games to essentials like clothing and winter gear – are posted online and promoted to Rutgers students, faculty and staff who can adopt a child’s wish.

Sponsors and families then have the chance to meet each other at a holiday-themed party where presents are distributed and children work on holiday arts and crafts. 

This year RUPA hosted nearly 600 people at the Douglass Campus Center and fulfilled more than 400 wishes.

“This is my favorite part, seeing the children receive their gifts,” said Keerthana Hirudayakanth, a junior who directs RUPA’s community service program.

“They are so excited to be here. They don’t even need to know what’s inside the wrapping paper – their faces light up as soon as they see the presents.”

Khloe Cabalfin, Sha’naja’s sponsor and a first-year psychology major at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, says she felt the same way as Hirudayakanth.

 “I’m so happy she loved all of her presents,” Cabalfin says. “I’m glad I could reach out and make a difference by just putting a smile on her face.”

After opening some more gifts and posing for several pictures with a cardboard gingerbread man, Cabalfin, Sha’naja and Brown made their way over to the craft section, decorating snowflakes, poinsettias and cookies.

For Cabalfin, spending time with Hamilton reminded her why the holiday season is one of giving.

“There’s just something about a bunch of people being happy together in one setting that’s really magical, I think,” Cabalfin says.  “They aren’t always going to be happy but for a short period they are – and that’s the heart of it of all.”