Gambell Visit Wraps up Operation Santa Claus 2009

GAMBELL, Alaska -- It had been six years since Santa was last seen in this tiny Yupik Eskimo village in the Bering Sea. He'd been here, of course, every Christmas; making his way at midnight along the neat rows of tiny houses before vanishing at dawn. But none of the village's smaller children had ever actually seen Saint Nick until the jolly old elf himself swooped out of the sky last week aboard an Alaska Air National Guard transport plane.

Santa's rare daytime visit to Gambell, on St. Lawrence Island, was the final mission of Operation Santa Claus 2009. Now in its 53rd year, Operation Santa Claus is a joint initiative of the Alaska Air and Army National Guard. With help from a small, volunteer band of elves, the Guard collects donations of Christmas goodies from individuals, businesses and other organizations around the state. Loaded down with gift-wrapped toys, fresh fruit, books, school supplies and other scarce goods, Guard aircrews then fan out to distribute Christmas cheer to children and adults in some of Alaska's most remote villages.

This particular trip reflected the persistence of Op Santa organizers. Three times, volunteers showed up at Kulis Air National Guard Base in the early morning as aircrews prepared a plane. Each time, Alaska's bitter December weather forced a cancellation. The fourth time proved the charm, as the HC-130 transport roared off the snowy runway for the two-and-a-half-hour flight.

"This visit means a lot," said John Bruce, principle of the Gambell Public School, as excited schoolchildren moved through the hall on their way to the school's gymnasium. "For one thing, we don't get a lot of visitors out here, 35 miles from Siberia. And the kids here are used to having flights canceled -- it happens all the time. They all just rolled with it, and I think it just added to the anticipation."

Inside the gym, a throng of children pushed forward to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus as a Salvation Army brass quartet played an assortment of Christmas songs. Other children clustered around a table filled with young-adult books. Nearby, villagers line up for free ice cream sundaes donated by Rich Owens, owner of the Alaska Tastee Freez restaurant and a long-time supporter of Alaska's military outreach programs.

Every year, a different set of villages hosts the visits. In addition to Gambell, Guard members this year brought Santa and Mrs. Claus to St. George, Koyuk, Nondalton, Klukwan, Pedro Bay and Kasigluk. At each village, children climbed on Santa's lap and were rewarded with a gift-wrapped present from his toy workshop.

"What a great time," said Brig. Gen. Randy Banez, taking in his first Op Santa mission as commander of the Alaska Army National Guard. "This program is just an outstanding example of Alaska's Guard members reaching out to our communities. The folks here have just been outstanding hosts, and it's great seeing these kids get so excited."

"It certainly makes for a lot of happy faces," agreed Mrs. Claus afterward. "You'd be surprised at how often they'll open up that gift, and find a teddy bear, and their face will just light up and they'll say 'Oh, it's just what I wanted!".
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