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December 15, 2019

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Santa soldiers bring joy to an Alaskan village

A school employee wearing a traditional pink Alaska native smock called a kuspuk breezed through the hubbub in the cafeteria adorned with murals of purely Alaska scenes, zigzagging through children clutching presents and past uniformed soldiers wearing Santa caps.

“Napakiak is happy today,” she proclaimed to principal Sally Benedict.

That’s a rare emotion of late for the 300 or so residents of this western Alaska community. “We’re falling into the Kuskokwim River,” Benedict said, because of erosion forcing everyone to move their town farther inland.

But for one day this month, the Alaska National Guard gave folks a reason to smile, thanks to its “Operation Santa Claus” program, which featured the jolly old elf himself distributing gifts to the children.

“This lightens the load,” said Benedict, a former Detroit educator. “This is sunshine for us. It’s a brightening of our day.”

Now in its 63rd year, Operation Santa Claus has become a rarity among National Guard units. Defense officials have shut down the program everywhere but Alaska, where the mission survives because the state is so large and some communities are so remote. The program started in 1956 when the residents of St Mary’s, Alaska, had no money to buy children Christmas presents after flooding severely impacted hunting and fishing. Since then, guard members try to visit at least two rural communities a year, delivering Christmas gifts and other needed supplies.

They’ve been to remote burgs with names like Koyukuk, Savoonga, Kwethluk and Tuntuliak. The visit to Napakiak involved two aircraft: a 644-kilometer trip in a small airplane from Anchorage, then a five-minute helicopter ride to the village.

“We love this, we truly love coming here,” said Major General Torrence Saxe, the adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard. “This is a proud tradition.”

The guard isn’t the only helper of Santa in the nation’s largest state.

The Salvation Army is helping the guard, collecting gifts, book bags and other items. Costco and Walmart also contribute to the program, and Rich Owens provides the ice cream from his Tastee Freez restaurant in Anchorage.

Climate change is a contributing factor in the erosion caused by the Kuskokwim, a 1,125-kilometer river that becomes an ice highway for travelers in the winter, has been an ongoing problem in Napakiak, but the pace has accelerated in the past few years. It’s a dilemma seen in numerous Alaska communities affected by a warming climate that is thawing permafrost — permanently frozen soil — and compromising river banks.

But at least for one day, the residents of Napakiak didn’t have to worry about the erosion creeping ever closer to their homes, and instead could focus on the smiles or even smudges of chocolate from the ice cream sundaes on their children’s faces.


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