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These babies and their families have had it rough. So Santa brought them a little joy
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Jeff Forrester, dressed as Santa Claus, holds 3-month-old Isabella during a visit Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018, to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. - photo by Jeff Gill

Santa Claus didn’t bring gifts or candy, but it didn’t matter to Jennifer Vargas.

He brought joy, and that gesture was enough.

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Jennifer Vargas passes her nearly 5-month-old son, Gael, to Jeff Forrester, during his visit as Santa Claus Sunday, Dec. 16, to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. - photo by Jeff Gill

“This is the season to give things, and that was very nice,” said the Rabun County mom, after Santa had spent time holding and posing for pictures with her son, nearly 5-month-old Gael.

Jeff Forrester, dressed as Santa, made his way spreading cheer Sunday, Dec. 16, through the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. He was joined by his wife, Pamela, playing the part of Mrs. Claus.

It’s the sixth year the Forresters have made the visit part of their holiday plans.

“There’s a lot of times when there’s first-time parents and they don’t know whether they’re going to have another Christmas with (their newborns),” Jeff Forrester said. “This is one of our highlights of the season.”

He does other Santa events, “but this is one where we donate our time, however long it takes.”

Jeff went room to room talking with parents and holding babies whenever he could. Pamela took pictures along the way, with plans to give the families copies of photos after the event.

“This is great, very great,” said Claris Centeno, 34, of Gainesville.

Centeno’s daughter, Isabella, was not quite a pound when she was born. The 3-month-old girl is growing stronger, but she still needs medical attention.

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Claris Centeno poses for a picture with her 3-month-old daughter, Isabella, and Jeff Forrester, who dressed as Santa Claus during his visit Sunday, Dec. 16, to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. - photo by Jeff Gill

The last few months have been taxing, as Centeno makes the daily trip to the NICU to check on her daughter.

She wants to bring Isabella home for Christmas, but otherwise, “I should be working.”

The Forresters were scheduled to visit 23 families on Sunday, said Amy Chastain, a registered nurse who coordinates the annual visit.

The effort is meant to bring a little happiness to families.

“This is not where they want to be this time of year,” Chastain said.

“People don’t usually think about these families,” Pamela said in a 2016 interview during a Christmas visit. “Their first Christmas with their babies is spent in a hospital.”

She added: “It’s also a ministry for us.”

For Vargas, the NICU has almost become like a second home.

“I was here a week before I gave birth,” she said.

Gael is making progress, but leaving is still a “far goal.”

He cried as Santa held him, with mom shaking a rattle over him to try to quieten him. It worked, and the mom and son posed for pictures with Santa.

“He’s a little spoiled, but that’s OK,” Vargas said.

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