Operation Santa brings holiday cheer to Napakiak

by K.J. Lincoln

Little Baby looks up at Santa while holding on to one of Santa’s fingers while getting her picture taken during Operation Santa Claus in Napakiak last Tuesday. photo by Kelly Lincoln

The community of Napakiak got a special visitor last Tuesday who came to share some holiday cheer and fun. Santa Claus, along with his helpers, brought a helicopter-load of gifts and presents and a tasty treat through Operation Santa Claus.

Santa paid a long overdue visit to the folks in Napakiak, or Naparyarraq in Yugtun. The residents of this beautiful Kuskokwim village were happy to see him.

“I got a call from the school that Santa was coming,” said one young mother. She brought her little ones so that they could meet Santa and get a photo taken on his lap.

Santa and his elves arrived into Napakiak aboard an Army Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. Some of his helpers came from Anchorage via an Army National Guard C-12 Huron twin-engine turbo prop aircraft earlier that morning into Bethel.

Santa’s helpers wearing red caps with the white fur trimming included Staff Sgt. Joseph Sallafie and Sgt. Randall Andrew of Bethel. They wasted no time in getting everything set up for the community before Santa made his grand entrance.

It’s been nineteen years since Santa last came to Napakiak. Operation Santa also went to Tuntutliak last month on the 25th.

The school children sang Jingle Bells and We Wish You a Merry Christmas and then Santa came in ho-ho-ho-ing and greeting everyone with handshakes.

Operation Santa Claus is a community outreach program sponsored by the Alaska Army National Guard, along with their partners – the Salvation Army and Tastee Freez Ice Cream.

Each child in K-12 received a backpack full of assorted goodies – toiletries, school supplies, fun craft kits – items donated from the Salvation Army and the public through the Alaska Army National Guard.

The backpacks were also donated by a commercial vendor.

And there were ice cream sundaes for everyone, courtesy of Tastee Freez – a local Anchorage business who has donated to Operation Santa Claus for many years. The soft-serve ice cream was personally and generously dished out by the owner, Rich Owens.

Everyone was invited to come and enjoy the vanilla ice cream covered in caramel and chocolate, whipped cream, sprinkles and a cherry on top.

A very special visitor also came along with Santa. Bolt, a sweet-natured Golden Retriever and his human Diann Richardson came all the way from the 176th Wing Alaska Air National Guard.

Bold is a trained therapy dog and he was getting love and pets from the children. He flew in the Blackhawk with Santa.

The Home of the Huskies was bustling with Christmas festiveness. In one area of the gym Santa was meeting all the children and pictures were taken. Each child was given a wrapped present after their photo shoot. In another area Santa’s helpers were busy passing out backpacks. In another section was the ice cream station. And throughout the gym, other helpers were passing out amazing looking handmade knitted and crocheted hats and candy canes.

“These hats were knitted by women in Florida who found out about our program years ago,” said Candis Olmstead, CIV/Lt. Col, AKANG Director of Communications. “And they knit these hats year round and mail them to us to give out to people in villages. They are beautiful.”

Soon after, you could see many colorful and stylishly knitted and crocheted hats all over the gym, being worn by kids of all ages.

The children of Napakiak also especially enjoyed Kristen Durand from KTUU Channel 2 News, Scott Gross from KTVA-TV, and Krysti Shallenberger from KYUK who joined in on the festivities.

Other guests included Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, the adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard and commissioner for the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. And Jenni Ragland, Service Extension & EDS Director for The Salvation Army Alaska Division.

Taking photos for Operation Santa was U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Emily Farnsworth.

Operation Santa Claus began in 1956 in response to a request from St. Mary’s Mission for toys for their children. Spring floods and a drought had caused a severely negative impact on fishing and hunting that year and the mission spent all of their money to pay for food to be shipped in. This left no money to buy gifts for the children for Christmas.

However, upon the mission’s request for assistance, gifts were donated and the Alaska Air National Guard transported the goods to St. Mary’s, spreading joy and good tidings to the small, remote community.

This is the 63rd year anniversary for Operation Santa Claus. In the last five years, Operation Santa has also visited Akiachak, Akiak, Emmonak, Kipnuk, Kongiganak, Kwigillingok, Savoonga, St. Mary’s, St. Michael, Togiak, and Tuluksak.

It was a beautiful day for flying. Soon sadly, everyone had to go home but with happy full hearts. Santa and his helpers went on their way with their hands and arms full of Christmas letters written by the school children of Napakiak.