Operation Santa Claus begins in Alaska villages

by Maj. John Callahan
November 18, 2016

TOGIAK, Alaska - In a rare daytime appearance, Santa and about 50 of his elves - including Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and First Lady Donna Walker - came early this year to visit Christmas cheer upon the schoolchildren of this remote village in Southwest Alaska.

The early visit was made possible by the Alaska National Guard's Operation Santa Claus, now in its 60th year. Each year since 1956, volunteers have come together to process and package donated Christmas toys, school supplies, books and staple foods. Most of these "elves" are affiliated with the Alaska Army or Air National Guard; others step forward from local businesses and community groups. Alaska Air National Guard crews then fly the elves and their collected goodies to a selected handful of villages a year.

In the festive Togiak School gymnasium, small schoolchildren climbed onto Mr. and Mrs. Santa's laps to receive gifts. Others crowded around the visiting Guard members, peppering them with questions, and challenged their guests to push-ups and "Eskimo stick" contests.

"The children were really excited to learn they were coming," said Sam Gosuk, principal of the Togiak School. "And so were the adults. I really want to thank the people here - not only students, but also teachers and some members of the community - who stayed up late decorating the gym. Everything was very organized."

"It was so amazing," Margie Frost, the school's secretary, said to Walker as she drove the governor and first lady back to the Guard's waiting C-130 aircraft afterwards. "I have a story I'd like to tell you.

"In 2000, my dad died near Bethel," she continued. "He fell through the ice. That was December 23. We got the news on Dec. 24 - Christmas Eve - that he was missing.

"I didn't think I would ever feel the same about Christmas. But now I do, seeing how happy all the kids are. It is really special. I feel like that Christmas spirit is back."

Three additional Operation Santa Claus missions are scheduled for 2016. The elves will visit Akiak, Akiachak, Tuluksak and Grayling in December. Altogether, Operation Santa Claus 2016 will deliver Christmas cheer to about 1,800 children, said Op Santa Volunteer Coordinator April Gettys.

Operation Santa Claus began in 1956, when floods and a drought ruined the hunting and fishing season for residents in the Western Alaska village of St. Mary's. With only enough money to pay to have food shipped in and nothing left over for Christmas, the mother superior of the village's Roman Catholic mission wrote a letter to the Alaska National Guard asking for help. Radio and television stations and Anchorage's two newspapers spread the word, and within days the Guard was inundated with donations of new and used toys. The mission closed in the late 1980s, but the gift-giving effort continued to grow. Since then, literally tens of thousands of Alaska's schoolchildren have had their Christmas seasons brightened through Operation Santa Claus.