Army wraps up Christmas outreach

Operation Santa Claus visits arctic village

by Sheryl Tollerud, Major –

Governor Sarah Palin and daughter Piper with General Howie Chandler, Commander of the Pacific Forces. Photo by Jenni Ragland

Majors Doug and Sheryl Tollerud are divisional leaders for the Alaska Division. Here Major Sheryl recounts a day in the life of The Salvation Army during the Christmas season.

The arctic village of Kivalina, Alaska lies northwest of Kotzebue on the Chukchi Sea, above the Arctic Circle. We travel there with our annual Operation Santa Claus, flying in a C-130 with the Air National Guard to deliver a hot turkey dinner, toys, stockings, books, clothing, music and Santa!

Our day begins at 7 a.m. when we arrive on base to go through security and briefing before boarding our plane for the two-hour flight. The weather forecast for Kivalina is -4 with a windchill of -25—warmer than expected! We wear our Salvation Army uniforms, but at least the women are able to wear slacks.

Above the Arctic Circle
Frigid arctic air greets us at our destination. The Chukchi Sea (Arctic Ocean) is filled with pack ice and very large icebergs. The sun is on the left horizon and by day’s end it moves over to the right side, though never getting above the horizon line.

About 40-50 Yupik Eskimos welcome us with big smiles and handshakes. They take off their right gloves to do so. I shake two people’s hands with both gloves on before I realize that is “rude” (although they would understand). When I remove my right glove for more handshaking, I am received with even bigger smiles!

The children are peering past us looking for Santa, who holds back and arrives later as part of our program. I tell them: “He’s coming in a bit; he has a much shorter journey from the North Pole on his reindeer.”

Santa, The Salvation Army and a surprise guest
The village is about five minutes away; we travel by snow machines. Once we reach the school, we go to the gym and set up. Since The Salvation Army is in charge of the toys, we set up near where Santa and Mrs. Claus will sit and organize the toys by age and gender. The school principal greets everyone; since the town has no mayor, she is the highest-ranking public official. She welcomes the dignitaries, all the workers, and Rich from Tastee Freeze, who brings ice cream! Then the surprise guest arrives—Governor Sarah Palin and her daughter, Piper! Prayer is offered, dinner is served and a festive atmosphere prevails. The dignitaries receive a gift of Eskimo art, the local choir sings, the Governor says a few words, and Eskimo dancers perform to the beat of their homemade drums. Finally Santa and Mrs. Claus arrive.

Because the village is small (377 people), we organize quickly this year and I have more time than usual to talk with the people and hold the Eskimo babies while their parents have dinner. When it is time to work Santa’s line of children, I get to greet each of them, give the secret signals to my elves and talk with the children while they wait their turn. When it is over, we play basketball with a few of the kids before departing on another snow machine back to the plane.

At the end, the Governor’s aide tries to whisk her away, but she takes the time to come over to Doug and says, “Hello, Major Tollerud. I’m so glad to see The Salvation Army is always at doing what you do best. Thanks for all the Army is doing for the people throughout the entire state.” They talk awhile about some issues we are working on with the state government. It is fun to watch the other dignitaries wonder why Doug receives that extra special treatment and I am proud to know it is because of The Salvation Army’s strong influence and ministry in the state.

Village life
Before we leave we take a picture by the whalebone arch that welcomes people into Kivalina. Most of the people here still live by subsistence hunting of whales and fishing. They are miles from anything else, at the end of the world (top of the word, rather), and are all related in one way or another. I ask some of the teens what their plans are; if they will join the military (which some do), go to college or what? They mostly want to remain in their village and hunt, fish and survive. The biggest encouragement I give them is to finish high school, which is a big problem throughout Alaska (a 25-36 percent dropout rate). Many of the teen girls already have children 2-3 years old. It is interesting to look at life from their perspective. The most important question I ask my snow machine driver is about the fishing last summer. That gets him going for a long time.

After lots of “Merry Christmases” and “God Bless Yous,” we fly back to Anchorage, arriving about 7 p.m.

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