TRENTON, NJ – South Plainfield High School (SPHS) students Olivia Olano and Andrew “Drew” Rachwal were chosen as 2020 Middlesex County Unsung Hero award recipients. For 35 years, the Middlesex County School Boards Association along with Middlesex County Association of School Administrators have recognized high school juniors and seniors who make outstanding contributions to their school and communities. The students chosen go above and beyond traditional recognition awards for academic, athletic and artistic achievements. The Unsung Hero Program is meant to honor those who are considered heroes because they go out of their way to help people without the expectation of recognition or material awards.
Although the dinner and award ceremony scheduled to take place on March 24 in Trenton were canceled this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, students were recognized with an online video featuring an overview of the program with the award recipients’ photo, name and school.
Rachwal is a senior at SPHS. At 17 years old, he has already made a great impact in the community. Rachwal achieved the rank of Eagle Scout making him the 53rd Eagle Scout of Troop 309 on Nov. 13, 2019, although his April 4 Court of Honor had to be postponed due to COVID-19 precautions. Rachwal’s Eagle Scout project entailed chopping down and removing approximately 300 invasive saplings and small trees from the field behind the old A&P/ACME on Park Avenue.
Rachwal also ran cross-country track for SPHS throughout his high school career, and excelled at Model United Nations, even traveling to Vancouver, WA, this year for a conference. Rachwal says he was surprised to receive the award.
“It is a very humbling experience,” Rachwal said. “I was nominated by my school guidance counselor, Mrs. Giannakis, whom I thank greatly for nominating me for the award. I am flattered to have received the award and know that what I do is recognized by others, even if I do not act for fame or recognition.”
Rachwal feels that volunteering and helping where there is a need is important for everyone in the community. Whether he is volunteering at the local food bank or helping his father, Recreation Attendant Peter Rachwal, transform the PAL gym into Safety Town road course for preschoolers, Drew Rachwal believes helping others is a part of life.
“It’s good to go out and help others and work to make where you live a better place,” Rachwal said. “During these hard times, it’s always good to help out where you can; and I would encourage others to lend a hand where they can whenever they can (practicing safe social distancing of course!).”
“When Drew was nominated, we thought it was a nice achievement, but it wasn’t until we saw the video Middlesex Country Administrators produced that the magnitude of the award sank in,” said Pete Rachwal. “To see the past events and to see Dr. Lishak and several of our Board of Education members in attendance is when it really hit home. I even got a little choked up. The presentation was especially nice since it came at a time when Drew’s Eagle Court of Honor had to be postponed for obvious reasons. I’m so proud of Drew and all of his accomplishments. Both Olivia and Drew are good kids, and I am happy the for both of them.”
Olano is a 17-year-old junior at SPHS on a mission to raise money for K9s for Warriors, the largest provider of service dogs for disabled American veterans. The K9s for Warriors goal is to empower veterans to return to civilian life with ‘dignity and independence.’ Olano has been able to raise money for the cause through her business, Noki Treats, where she makes and sells organic dog biscuits. She had planned to travel to Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida this summer to tour the main dog training facility and present them with $1,500, however, her plans are on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Olano said she was not expecting the honor of being chosen as an Unsung Hero.
“My guidance counselor, Ms. Reilly, called me into her office one day and told me that she nominated me for this program,” Olano said. “She knew about my Noki Treat business that I started, and she thought that I was worthy enough to be in the running! I feel very humbled and grateful for this opportunity.”
Olano is also the captain of the SPHS tennis team and a member of the SPHS softball team. The extra-curricular activities Olano chooses at school and in the community reflect her passion to help others. She is a member of the Environmental Science Club, Passionately Pink Club for breast cancer support and education, and she has volunteered for years at the South Plainfield Senior Center, where her mother, Tree Olano, works as the Director of the center.
“I’m inspired every day by my parents, and they have always taught me to give and not expect,” Olano said. “I also am inspired by the other nominees and their stories. I love helping others, and for us teenagers, doing things we love and getting some recognition for doing so is pretty cool!”
“I was floored and overly proud when I found out that Olivia had won this prestigious award,” said Tree Olano. “I cried happy tears for a while. She is such an amazing young lady. Olivia is kind, smart, genuine, funny and athletic, yet extremely humble. She’s self-driven and always works hard. She is grateful for our family and doesn’t take anything for granted. Both my husband and I feel very blessed. I’m so excited for her and can’t wait to see where her future takes her!”
While describing the students selected for the Unsung Hero Program, the moderator of the video posted online to honor the students said that every student chosen is determined and wants only to spread joy and help others. Many had overcome extraordinary obstacles to help others with selfless compassion. The Unsung Hero Program is meant to share the inspirational stories of students in Middlesex County while honoring them. The students selected have big hearts and aspirations to make a positive impact on the world.
“I’m very happy and thankful to have received the award, though there is still an element of disbelief to it,” said Rachwal. “I don’t do things expecting a reward, and to receive an award for doing things I consider normal is a bit shocking, but still greatly appreciated. I am extremely grateful for my family and school for encouraging me.”
“I’d like to thank my family, my school administrators, Middlesex County, and of course, the dogs. I wouldn’t be anywhere without them!” said Olano.
The Unsung Heroes Program video is available online to honor the students because their 35th Annual Dinner/Award Ceremony that was supposed to take place on March 24 at Old Bridge High School was canceled. The link to the four-minute video is available here.