Operation Santa Claus returns to its origins

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- There's something indispensable about returning to your roots, like an intrinsic yearning that needs to be filled. And who knows yearning better than children awaiting Christmas?

Operation Santa Claus answered that calling when its volunteers and partners delivered gifts, fresh fruit, school supplies and Santa Claus to more than 250 children in St. Mary's, a community in southwestern Alaska, Dec. 5.

The operation began 59 years ago as a request from St. Mary's Mission for Christmas donations for their orphans after a rough year of subsistence living. The Alaska Air Guard responded, delivering not only gifts and food, but also St. Nick. Since then, the annual event evolved into the current partnership with the Alaska National Guard supporting Operation Santa Claus alongside more than 30 other organizations such as The Salvation Army and local businesses.

"It was awesome," said Bill Alstrom, the city's mayor, recalling childhood memories of the first operation. "They landed on the river - they were C-123s, and of course they brought Santa Claus."

Almost six decades later, members of the Alaska National Guard arrived in a C-130 "Hercules" aircraft, bringing Santa and his merry band of helpers once more. The elementary school gym filled with smiles, wrapping paper and push-up challenges issued by brazen, energetic youth. Traditional Christmas music played as children met with the Clauses, ate fruit and ice cream and showed off gifts. Thank-yous were exchanged from both patrons and volunteers for the opportunity to serve.

The event ended with a traditional Native dance, which both U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan and Gov. Bill Walker joined at the residents' request.

"What a gorgeous site this is," Walker said. "Thank you to the Alaska National Guard who flew us out here today, and the tons of volunteers [that helped] make this happen."

Next year, Operation Santa Claus plans to visit five villages, decided by an application process based on the needs of Alaska's rural communities and the aircraft capabilities of the Alaska National Guard to support them.
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