Rudolph's nose is a little brighter this year, and the elves are busily working on toys in Santa's workshop. That's according to Pamala Stuhler, a certified nurse's assistant in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, who this year has become something of an expert on all things Santa.

Stuhler moonlighted as Santa Claus this past month, writing letters to children as part of an annual fund-raiser to bring Christmas to needy families at the hospital.

In exchange for a $10 donation, parents were sent a signed letter - postmarked from North Pole, Alaska - that included personal details about their child.

Jean Marks, an employee of the hospital, said she can't wait to see her son's reaction to the letter.

'Especially when he sees the postmark from the North Pole, he'll be floored,' Marks said. 'He'll know then that it's real.'

The fund-raiser was begun by another CNA, Kari Braun, who two years ago came up with the idea to send Christmas letters to children. This year's letters added $350 to the pot of about $2,000 that was raised throughout the year. Braun's efforts led to a huge increase from the year before, allowing the NICU to adopt four families instead of the two they had planned on.

The adopted families each have newborns, and one is in intensive care. The families, Stuhler said, weren't looking for the newest technology or the latest DVD. They asked for clothes, food, and rent money.

'You know, very basic things for their survival,' she said. The families' presents have already been wrapped by hospital staff and include warm clothes, money and a supermarket gift card.

As their main avenue of advertisement was through the hospital newsletter, most parents who asked for letters this year were employees of the hospital. But Stuhler is hoping that next year the project can be even bigger.

'It can be a very profitable fund-raiser,' Stuhler said. 'Next year we'll make it even bigger.'

Stuhler said she spent about 40 hours preparing the letters, playing Christmas movies in the background as inspiration.

'The Santa letters were a blast,' she said. 'It kind of actually got me in the spirit a little bit.'

Stuhler wrote letters to children aged three months to 17 years. The 17-year-old has autism and believes in Santa, but Stuhler said she also wrote one to a 16-year-old because her mom thought it would be nice for Christmas.

But her most difficult request came when a co-worker ordered a letter for her daughter who had been told the night before that Santa wasn't real. The 8-year-old asked her mother if Santa was real and in an emotional conversation the two discussed the meaning of Christmas.

Stuhler said she had to think long and hard about what she was going to say to the little girl.

She wrote about how special Christmastime is, as it is the time of year when people help each other, give each other gifts and spend time with family.

'This is what the Christmas Spirit is all about!' Stuhler wrote. 'My hope for you, Amelia, is that you will always believe in the magic of Christmas.'

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