Operation Santa Claus brings holiday cheer
Rural Alaska gets a visit from Santa.
by Jenni Ragland –
Communities in rural Alaska get a visit from Santa during the holiday season thanks to a group of elves from the Alaska National Guard, along with The Salvation Army and other supporters of the annual “Operation Santa Claus” program. The participants often arrive in a C-130 Hercules cargo plane
This year’s Operation Santa started with the community of Koyuk, one of the checkpoints along the Iditarod Trail. As the plane touched down on the airstrip, pick-up trucks were ready to load up the toys, books, fresh fruit and ice cream sundaes. Four-wheelers zipped onto the runway to pick up the elves and give them a ride to the school.
Once everyone arrived at the school, a group of elves packed goody bags for every child with fresh fruit, bottled water, stocking stuffers and toothbrushes. We visited the village store while there and quickly came to understand what a special treat the fruit would be, with a 10 pound bag of mixed apples and oranges priced at $23.99!
Another group sorted the wrapped toys to keep everything moving smoothly when Santa finally arrived. Mr. Whitekeys, a colorful Anchorage entertainer, was along to provide entertainment and emcee the program. Because the adults in the community wanted to keep Santa’s visit a surprise, they told the children Mr. Whitekeys was coming—surprisingly they knew who he was as they have seen his weekly segment on the Channel 2 News.
The energy in the gymnasium built, awaiting the arrival of Santa and Mrs. Claus. As kids and adults sang “Jingle Bells,” the much-anticipated guests made their appearance. Children quickly gathered around, hugging the Clauses as they made their way to the center of the gym. There they spent the next hour or two handing out presents and taking pictures with each child. When the kids were finished, it was time for the elders and other adults to have their turn!
A tradition that started more than 50 years ago, Operation Santa brings a USO-style holiday celebration to communities in rural Alaska. The Salvation Army provides wrapped toys for all the children in each community—from infants to age 10—thanks to the generosity of many in the Anchorage community. The Alaska National Guard provides presents for the older youth. They also provide the airplanes—the C-130 cargo plane and, this year, a huge C-17 and, a Black Hawk helicopter.
“The Alaska National Guard genuinely appreciates the partnership with The Salvation Army that helps make Op Santa possible,” said Shannon DeHass, coordinator for Operation Santa project. “They bring such joy to our program.”
Other Alaskan towns that received a visit from Santa Claus this year included St. George, Nondalton, Pedro Bay, Gambell, Klukwan and Kasigluk. For The Salvation Army, being part of Operation Santa is a wonderful opportunity to share the joy of the holidays and the true meaning of Christmas. Major Sheryl Tollerud and her husband Douglas are the divisional leaders for Alaska. She shares, “Op Santa is such a joyful experience for me. There is joy in the adventure of traveling to very remote areas in this great State of Alaska; joy in meeting new friends who are so welcoming and excited. And there is great joy in sharing the love of Jesus in a practical and personal way.”