JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - In its 68th year, the Alaska National Guard's annual community outreach program, Operation Santa Claus, continues to bring the magic of the season to the remote communities of Fort Yukon, Golovin, Koyuk, and Tuluksak.
Teaming up with The Salvation Army, this year's program is set to deliver gifts and tidings of good cheer to approximately 560 children.
Jenny Ragland, a service extension and disaster services director with The Salvation Army, highlighted the organization's long-standing partnership with the Alaska National Guard, particularly through Operation Santa Claus.
"The Salvation Army's role is really the gift collector. We receive gifts, we wrap gifts, we pack them in backpacks, provide some snacks and some stocking stuffers and get them all ready," said Ragland, who began supporting the program in 1996. "So, when we show up in a community with Santa, there is a gift with every child's name that we share with them."
While The Salvation Army oversees the donation and festivity coordination, the Alaska National Guard, within the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, plays a key role in the logistical support of the operation.
"Operation Santa wouldn't happen without the partnership between The Salvation Army and the Alaska National Guard," said Ragland. "First and foremost, our Guard partners provide the transportation and the logistics and the planning."
Gifts earmarked for the western Alaska communities were palletized by National Guardsmen at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson before embarking on their journey to Bethel or Nome. The Alaska Air National Guard's C-17 Globemaster III and the Alaska Army National Guard's C-12 Huron fixed-wing aircraft facilitated the transport.
Upon reaching the hub locations of Bethel and Nome, Santa, Mrs. Claus and their helper elves continued their journey to Tuluksak Nov. 14 and Golovin Nov. 30 via Army Guard UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters loaded with all the gifts.
Hanna Alexie, a kindergarten teacher in Tuluksak, witnessed the genuine enthusiasm of her students as they eagerly awaited the arrival of Santa and Mrs. Claus looking out the classroom window.
"The students were very excited for this day, and today they were very anxious waiting," said Hanna Alexie, as she highlighted the infectious excitement that spread through the classroom. "They didn't want to take off their coats too, waiting in our classroom. They couldn't wait for you guys."
Jerry Hawk, a community member, expressed gratitude for the rare gathering. He emphasized the significance of bringing the community together to celebrate the holiday.
"The best part was bringing my grandkids over here with everybody, with the community," said Hawk, reflecting on sentiments of unity and joy. "The peace of joy, the peace of God is within us."
"I'd like to thank everybody that came over, the [National Guard], Santa Claus, and all the presents, and all the people that came here," said Hawk. "I'd like to wish everybody a Merry Christmas. Thank you."
Two weeks later, the jolly bunch continued the heartwarming journey to Golovin, where local cheerleaders led chants and performed choreographed routines while welcoming the festive visitors.
The community's enthusiasm was not only visible in their cheers but also in their preparations. Donna Katchatag, tribal coordinator, said, "They prepared desserts, cookies, lemonade, and all the decorating was the help of the kids also."
Katchatag, who was a young student the last time Operation Santa Claus was here, shared her special significance of welcoming the program back after so many years.
"I don't have any memories besides him leaving, and I was wondering why is Santa leaving in a helicopter?" said Katchatag, who has been preparing to tell her children about Santa's rotary-wing departure. "We are [going to watch him leave], and I have been telling them all this time."
Katchatag was grateful for the new memories she now has to share with her family and community.
It is an Operation Santa Claus tradition that the festivities kick off with everyone singing "Jingle Bells." Students were then called one by one to meet with Santa, where they received personalized gifts, candy canes, and had the opportunity for photos. Volunteers donned Santa hats, and the Christmas spirit filled the gym, creating a joyful atmosphere for all involved.
Katchatag expressed gratitude for the collaboration and outreach from The Salvation Army and National Guard. She said that the entire community is happy to have Santa come again.
In the interior, gifts destined for Fort Yukon were loaded onto the Black Hawk at Ladd Army Airfield on Fort Wainwright, ensuring a direct and efficient delivery Dec 1.
The program is set to visit the community of Koyuk over the first two weeks of December, promising more holiday magic for these remote areas.