WASHINGTON - The Alaska National Guard is bringing Christmas a month early to children in remote Alaskan villages, some of whom might otherwise not get to see a Santa Claus or receive a holiday gift.
The Guardsmen from the 144th Airlift Squadron are slated to fly a C-130 Hercules aircraft from Kulis Air National Guard Base to Kotlik, Alaska, tomorrow for the third and last major Operation Santa Claus flight of the season, said Kalei Brooks, a spokeswoman for Alaska's Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
The Airmen will carry Santa and Mrs. Claus and other community and business volunteers and join them in distributing toys, clothing, books, school supplies and holiday spirit to local residents. They'll also help serve up a feast of turkey, mashed potatoes and green beans, as well as ice cream sundaes donated by the Tastee-Freez company.
The Alaska National Guard has conducted Operation Santa Claus since 1956 to bring holiday cheer to children and families in remote villages across the state.
That year, spring floods devastated the fishing season, and a drought wiped out much of the wildlife hunters and trappers that would normally have gathered, Brooks said. Nuns at a mission in St. Mary's, Alaska, worried that as they used all the money they had to ship in food for their orphanage, nothing would be left to buy gifts for the children.
A letter from one of the nuns found its way to the Alaska Air National Guard's 144th Airlift Squadron in Anchorage and gave birth to Operation Santa Claus. Since then, the effort has branched out to reach different remote villages every year. Last year, the Guard observed the program's 50th anniversary by returning to St. Mary's, among other villages.
The Alaska Guard and its elves kicked off this season's Operation Santa Claus Nov. 3 by flying two C-130s loaded with volunteer elves and goodies to the town of Wainwright. The town, about 70 miles southwest of Barrow, has fewer than 600 residents. They flew another Operation Santa Claus flight Nov. 13 to Togiak, a village of just over 800 people at the head of Togiak Bay.
While the Alaska Air National Guard flies C-130 missions, the Army National Guard participates in Operation Santa Claus, too, delivering goodies to local communities via UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, said Air Force Capt. Guy Hayes, the Alaska Guard's chief of public affairs.
To ensure there's a big supply of gifts to deliver, the Operation Santa Claus elves collect donations year-round. "A lot of hard work and a lot of volunteers go into this project," she said. "It's a year-round effort."
Volunteers go through lost-and-found boxes after the school year ends and get items professionally cleaned. They scour their local communities for books to donate, and collect donations from local organizations and businesses to distribute, she said.
Even gifts as simple as fresh fruit and bottled water are received in the villages with open arms. "Things like that are very expensive in remote Alaskan villages," she said. "So getting them is a treat."
Brooks, who plans to take part in tomorrow's flight for her fourth consecutive year supporting Operation Santa Claus, said it's gratifying to bring the holiday spirit to villagers who might otherwise go without a celebration.
"It's a way of showing that we as an organization the Alaska National Guard really do care about the community as a whole," she said. "We all want to get out there and integrate with the community and help our fellow Alaskans."