Alaska National Guard brings Santa to remote Yup'ik Eskimo village - InfoNews

Current Conditions


Alaska National Guard brings Santa to remote Yup'ik Eskimo village

This photo taken Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013, in Kwethluk, Alaska, shows Alaina David, 2, crying while having her photo taken with Santa . The visit of Santa and Mrs. Claus is part of the Alaska National Guard's Operation Santa Claus, which visits several remote Alaska Native villages each year. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
December 12, 2013 - 10:21 PM

KWETHLUK, Alaska - Christmas in Alaska came early this week to nearly 300 students attending school in the Yup'ik Eskimo village of Kwethluk.

Thanks to the volunteer program co-ordinated by the Alaska National Guard, Santa and Mrs. Claus greeted children in the western Alaska community and took pictures with them before helper elves handed out gifts.

"Santa and Mrs. Claus is not something that normally happens out there for them. It's commonplace for us here in Anchorage or the bigger towns to be able to go to the malls and see Santa," said Jo Katkus, the chairwoman of Operation Santa Claus, as she and 24 other volunteers waited early Wednesday morning at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to load a military C130 cargo plane for the 300 mile flight.

"For them, it's a real extra treat," she said.

The fact the visit even happened is a testament to the adaptability of Alaskans, whose flight plans change at any given moment because of weather or mechanical issues. Flying — oftentimes in bad weather — is required in Alaska since most of communities are off the state's limited road system.

The original plan was to fly the volunteers in the military transport to the western Alaska hub community of Bethel, and then take the National Guard's Blackhawk helicopter the last 12 miles to Kwethluk.

But a mechanical issue grounded the helicopter, making it appear the program's second scheduled visit to the Yup'ik community would be a bust. A mechanical failure doomed a planned visit last month.

Instead of giving up, 10-year program veteran Dina Banez went to the armoury's waiting area and dug out her cellphone. Within minutes, she found a local air taxi company, Grant Aviation, willing to donate a flight to take about a third of the volunteers and gifts to Kwethluk, despite wind gusts of up to 50 mph.

This wasn't even the most creative fix she and others have come up with since the program began in 1956. They try to visit three remote Alaska villages every year.

"We've gone on dog sled from different villages, snowmachines, ATVs, pickup trucks, whatever it is. We adapt and overcome, and it's all to make the kids' Christmas and bring a little joy to them," Banez said.

Banez and others applauded when the pilot set the small commuter plane down on the airstrip outside Kwethluk.

The visitors arriving in the school multipurpose room, where lunch was just finishing up, created a buzz throughout the school — not to mention the entire community after an announcement was sent village-wide.

"Not only the kids and the parents came, but we had the elders and a lot of the community members participating, as well," said assistant principal Zach Bastoky, who was wearing a green kupsuk, a traditional Alaska Native smock made for him by another instructor.

Everyone was excited "because we hardly get Operation Santa, and it's fun for the kids," said senior Alicia Michael, 17.

Teachers, some speaking in English, others in Yup'ik, paraded their students into the gym, where photos were taken with Santa and Mrs. Claus. Some of the smaller children had broad smiles on their faces, others left Santa's lap in tears, but those soon dried up as they lined up to receive their gifts.

"They get scared, some of them, the first time seeing him (Santa)," said parent Roy Michael, adding the program is good not only for children, but families.

Students returned to their classroom, only to be replaced by older students. The Salvation Army helped arrange for gifts for all children, up through age 18.

Since two-thirds of the volunteers remained in Bethel, plans had to be changed on the fly. After the older kids received their presents, the younger children came back to receive more gifts. The children got backpacks filled with school supplies, toys, toothbrushes and floss.

Long gone are the days when children received bags of candy, and the toothbrushes are intended to promote good dental care in rural Alaska, where there are few dentists.

Children were also given a book, which Banez said is the highlight for many children, and received an apple and an orange each on the way out of the gym — a treasure in western Alaska, where fresh fruit is an expensive luxury.

News from © The Associated Press, 2013
The Associated Press

  • Popular penticton News
  • Comments
  • New mountain highway proposed between Red Deer and Kamloops
    An Alberta development group is pitching the idea of a new highway linking central Alberta to B.C. cutting through the mountains and a section of Banff National Park. The Central Alberta Eco
  • Kamloops firefighter back at work after co-workers saved his life
    Four months after his co-workers saved his life, a Kamloops firefighter is back at work. Mike Silva has been working with Kamloops Fire Rescue for 15 years and was enjoying some time off in
  • Pier 1 closing all of its stores in Canada
    Pier 1 Imports, Inc. announced today that it has entered into bankruptcy protection and is pursuing a sale. The retailer  commenced voluntary Chapter 11 proceedings in the U.S. Bankrupt
  • West Kelowna's Bull Mountain glistens for its close-up
    It’s not a secret that West Kelowna’s family ski hill is getting infused with new life. Bull Mountain Adventure Park is being built on the remnants of Crystal Mountain Resort, an
  • Vernon family captures mesmerizing melting ice
    A Vernon family was on their way home from Kelowna when they made a pit stop after noticing a beautiful scene along Wood Lake. Matthew Royal and his daughters noticed how “cool”
View Site in: Desktop | Mobile