The Livingston, N.J., Toys "R" Us was in holiday spirit Monday night as four members of the New York Jets gave 20 students from Generation Jets Academy a memory they'll forever cherish.
Linebacker Nick Bellore, tackle Austin Howard, tight end Konrad Reuland and guard Caleb Schlauderaff were each in charge of a group of five students on an hour-long shopping spree.
When the students entered the store, each was presented with a $250 gift card.
"Obviously, the holiday season is special for us all," Bellore said. "These kids just light up. You see them being able to do things that a lot of kids are not able to do. Giving them that opportunity and being with them for that moment is special, and I think if you'd ask anybody, it's very rewarding and it's so much fun to see them find gifts that they've always dreamed of having and make that a reality."
The 20 children selected for the shopping spree were chosen based on their participation and performance in the Jets' Play 60 program, which helps kids fight childhood obesity and encourages students to get 60 minutes of physical activity each day.
"We started a Play 60 Challenge at their school this past fall," Jets community relations director Jesse Linder said, "and the kids that excelled at the program got selected to attend today's shopping event.
Monday's shopping spree was the fifth time the Jets and Generation Jets Academy have teamed up at the Livingston Toys "R" Us. Linder said the players are always informed beforehand that they'll be leading a group of four or five students. However, the students never know they're receiving a gift card until they arrive at the store.
"The $250 is for them to spend however they want to," Linder said. "But what you find is that each kid ends up buying something for their parents, something for a sibling, something for a friend, and that's what really touches you."
According to Patricia Thompson, Generation Jets Academy program supervisor, the shopping spree primarily benefits the kids. At the same time, it also gives them hope and a reason to achieve.
"What kid do you know that doesn't like toys?" Thompson said. "That's what Christmas means to them."
Ever since the Jets got involved with Generation Jets Academy, Thompson said enrollment for their program has increased and there's also a stronger sense of pride. She delivered a message to the students before they entered the store.
"Do you see what obedience, doing your school work, keeping yourself physically sound and fit and exercising, and being kind and listening to the adults can get you?" Thompson preached. "Do you see what this can lead to?"
The students weren't the only ones who took something away from the experience. The Jets players did as well.
Schlauderaff, who said he didn't even know Toys "R" Us was still in existence, said that two of his kids used $240 on their gift cards while the others spent only $130.
Asked if he periodically checked his kids' spending amounts while they were shopping, Schlauderaff gave an insightful response.
"I was kind of lazy and passive on that," No. 72 said. "I told them, you know what, you guys are in fourth grade now. You should figure out a little bit of math here. I mean, whatever. They weren't adding it up. But somehow, randomly, they got $240, which I thought was pretty good."
Bellore said the interaction between him and his group members mainly consisted of the kids questioning him about toys. He felt bad he couldn't provide better answers for them.
"They're asking me a lot about these toys that I really have no idea about," he said. "Not that I'm that old — I'm only 23. But asking me if this is the thing that goes with this set or this or that, I have no idea what they're talking about. I've never seen the item before. But it's obviously what the kids are playing with these days."
Schlauderaff found some humor in the items his kids chose to purchase
"I thought it was funny because they all showed up in their Play 60 shirts, so you're expecting them to go off and get like maybe a football or a basketball," he said. "But they cleaned house in the video game section. I was thinking, well, here's the NFL, we're supposed to be sponsoring active fitness, and they're sitting here getting video games."
Regardless of what toys were selected by the kids, the night was one that featured plenty of smiles and laughs. And by the time the checkout process had completed, 20 students' lives had been brightened and new perspectives had been gained all around.
"People lose sight of what it's all about," Bellore said. "It's all about giving back. It's what you can give more than what you can receive, and I think even though they're the ones doing the shopping, we get a whole lot more out of it than they do, just being able to be there for them and provide this opportunity."