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College students hand out holiday cheer at medical center
Trio prepares cards, gifts, books for hospital patients
Indira Islas, 18, talks about the value of giving to others Saturday at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. Islas and two other volunteers hope to put smiles on the faces of those who aren’t able to spend the holiday with family by giving out holiday cards and small presents on Christmas. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Spreading Christmas cheer to the people who need it most is something for which three college students will give up the majority of their Christmas Day.

“No one wants to be in the hospital on Christmas,” said Sarah Williamson, a University of Georgia student.

Williamson, fellow UGA student Connor Grady and University of Maryland student Indira Islas will kick off their volunteerism today at the Braselton campus at 1 p.m. and move through the Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s floors. They will move on to the Gainesville campus later that day.

For the younger patients, they have colorful stuffed animals and small books to pass out. Last year, only a few kids were stuck in the hospital for Christmas.

“That’s a good thing, but we didn’t have much to pass out,” said Williamson, who started volunteering with the group last year.

It took them eight hours to pass out all the goodies to patients last year, so this year they recruited help from friends and family, including Islas’s younger sister Ingrid Islas, 15, a junior at Gainesville High School.

Islas herself has been volunteering in various capacities since she was a freshman in high school, and knows her sisters will continue the tradition.

“They’ve seen it all,” she said. “They’re interested in it, too.”

In the Islas family, which includes seven girls all younger than Indira, humility is a value they hold highly.

“We were just raised that way,” Islas said.

Williamson’s family is also big on volunteerism, especially around the holiday season. They go to Gwinnett Medical Center every year, passing out presents and volunteering in any way they can. Her father even dresses up as Santa.

“Some people don’t get any visitors, so it can really change their day,” Williamson said.

Visits this year will include passing out homemade cards, with season’s greetings and get-well wishes, to younger patients. The cards, about 500 total, were made by high school students, including some from Hall County.

“The hope is to grow it every year, add more people and more stuff to give out,” Grady said.

Going to the floor last year was a memorable experience. Williamson reminisced on one child in particular, a “chubby blond” boy who was running around the room and excited to see them.

“We definitely have some interesting adventures, but we have fun,” Islas said about the previous years’ endeavors.

All female patients will receive flowers with the exception of the Intensive Care Unit and the maternity ward, since flowers are not allowed in those units.

All three students are interested in entering the medical field once they graduate. Part of their curriculum requires volunteer hours, but this event is special to them.

“It’s where we all met,” Islas said. “Friends who volunteer together stay together.”

Grady came up with the idea three years ago, when an event they had been a part of got canceled. For a few years, Grady and Islas were part of a group that handed out 5,000 candy canes to hospital employees.

Instead of passing out the candies, he came up with the idea to pass out goodie bags filled with cookies. The next year they put more planning into the idea and decided to include the patients. Every year it has grown into something more.

“It’s about giving back to the community,” Grady said. “Even being in a position to volunteer is special, because some people can’t.”