Alaska’s Operation Santa brings a celebration to remote villages.
by Jenni Ragland
Everybody loves a Christmas party! For several remote Alaskan villages, having a visit from the Operation Santa program—often before Thanksgiving—is the highlight of the holiday season. Organized by the Alaska National Guard with support from The Salvation Army, the program shares the joy of Christmas with each community—providing gifts, goody bags and the opportunity for children to visit with Santa and Mrs. Claus. This year, Operation Santa visited Kokhanok, St. Paul, Hoonah, Holy Cross, Tanana, Pilot Station, Little Diomede and White Mountain.
The first trip was to St. Paul, one of the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea (familiar to fans of the television show Deadliest Catch). Even traveling in the jumbo C-17 cargo jet, the flight there took nearly two hours. While en route the excitement built; many were on their first Op Santa trip. As the plane taxied to a stop, community members greeted Santa and the elves. Pick-up trucks loaded the gifts, books, fresh fruit, turkey dinner and ice cream sundaes while Santa and his helpers climbed aboard warm tour buses for the trip to
City Hall where the community gathered for the festivities.
The elves got right to work—some packing goody bags for every child with fresh fruit, bottled water, stocking stuffers and toothbrushes. Others organized the toys so the line would move quickly once Santa and Mrs. Claus arrive. (Volunteers begin wrapping toys in September, labeling each with an age range and whether the gift is for a boy or girl.) On the stage the Air Force Band of the Pacific played Christmas carols, while at the opposite end of the room, volunteers served lunch for everyone, including ice cream sundaes.
Soon the special guests—Santa and Mrs. Claus—arrived, as everyone sang “Jingle Bells.” The Clauses spent the next several hours handing out presents and taking pictures with each child. Just before the kids finished, the elders lined up for a quick visit with Santa, too.
As we loaded up the plane for our trip home, we swapped stories about the day. Captain Doreen Freeman, Alaska divisional women’s Ministries secretary, who was on her first Op Santa trip, said, “I’ve heard so much about Op Santa and was excited to be part of the celebration with the community of St. Paul. The people were so welcoming and opened their hearts to share the joy of Christmas with us, as much as we came to serve them.”
Even Santa sometimes encounters weather challenges! While St. Paul was the first trip, it wasn’t the first one scheduled. Two attempts to visit the community of Kokhanok were canceled due to weather, which presented an obstacle this year. It required four tries before proving successful—which was a huge relief for organizers who didn’t want the children to be disappointed as well as those in the community who wondered if Santa would ever arrive.