Christmas comes early for Cedar Rapids first-graders (WITH SLIDESHOW)

Teacher, Old Navy, volunteers come together to provide gifts

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April 1, 2014 | 3:45 am

One girl wanted a coat. Another wanted sparkly boots. Many of the children wanted shoes and needed socks. And their teacher, Steph Stulken, wanted them all to have everything.

“I’m a true believer that you have to take care of the whole child,” said Stulken, a first-grade teacher at Johnson School of the Arts in Cedar Rapids.

Stulken’s wishes came true on Friday afternoon when 16 of her students engaged in a wrapping-paper-ripping frenzy on the floor of the school’s lobby, as parents and volunteers looked on. The children marveled over clothing, footwear, books, toys and more, early holiday presents given from people throughout the nation.

“Look at this,” 6-year-old Rylan Stodola said as she pulled out a pair of gray fleece sweat pants with a hot pink drawstring.

“I love these,” said Marquise White, also 6, hoisting up a pair of gray and black high-tops.

The gift-giving tradition in Stulken’s classroom began last year, her first at the school, when the teacher noticed that some of her students didn’t have coats. Stulken posted on Facebook about how all she wanted was for the children to have clothes and food, the things they needed to be great learners.

Stulken’s parents, Sharyl and Steve, decided that they’d help out. Sharyl purchased a bunch of winter coats at an Old Navy store in Waterloo and Stulken did the same in Cedar Rapids. After sharing the class’ story with Old Navy employees, the women received deep discounts on the outerwear and gave the gifts to the students.

Stulken planned to repeat the project, in which students write Santa a list of things they want, need and a dream present, this year.

“It has expanded ginormously,” she said.

(Story continues below slideshow)

The Old Navy store in Cedar Rapids continued its involvement, but staff members this year volunteered to adopt the entire class and help turn the students’ wishes into reality. Manager Shannon Plagman paired other willing Old Navy stores from across the country with students, with each responsible for fulfilling an individual child’s requests.

Plagman was motivated in part by Stulken’s dedication to her students.

“Kids who don’t get everything they need breaks my heart,” Plagman said.

Stulken’s parents re-upped, organizing the presents, wrapping the boxes and even providing snacks for Friday’s gift-giving event. The Austin family, which includes two of Stulken’s former students from when she taught at Taylor Elementary School, also joined in on the altruism.

With her husband out of the country for work, Denise Austin and her children decided to alter their holiday tradition and give to others instead of to each other.

The Austins provided socks, underwear, bedding and even food for families who may not have enough to eat while the students are home from school for break.

Santa also had room in his gift bag to grant Stulken’s wishes. Plagman presented the teacher with a Target gift card — “We’ll spend it on something really cool for our room,” Stulken told her students — and a pair of black Ugg boots, which she’d requested from Santa.

Stulken teared up a few times throughout the event and called Friday “the best day of my life.” The teacher already is planning to continue the tradition next year.

“This is part of our family’s Christmas,” she said.

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