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Operation Santa Claus delivers Christmas gifts to Tuluksak

Visibility was poor, the ground was slick, and the rain was more ice than wet on Nov. 15. Conditions too challenging for even Santa’s seasoned sleigh crew. Some problems require modern solutions. Enter the Alaska National Guard’s Black Hawk, a four-blade, twin engine workhorse helicopter, reliable enough to transport wounded troops out of combat zones and get gifts to good boys and girls in remote places.

There wasn’t enough room inside the UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter for the Clauses and their helpers, the gifts and a radio reporter. So we took two trips. Santa was in the second group. That didn’t dampen seven-year-old Tuluksak second grader Stella’s excitement for St. Nick’s late arrival.

“I am excited to see Santa,” Stella said.

Over a hundred students and their families packed inside Tuluksak’s gymnasium. Mr. and Mrs. Claus were greeted and treated with Yup’ik drumming and dancing.

Tuluksak School Principal Kary DelSignore welcomed the visitors. She said that the community has faced a lot of challenges the past few years.

“We lost our water plant in a fire. Last year we had pipes burst underground, and the school had no running water, no sewer. We had to have water shipped in. That was a hardship on our community. We've had to rearrange our school schedules and get support from the state. But this is a really exciting event for our community and definitely a very positive event for everyone,” DelSignore said.

DelSignore also said that the high cost of living and the lack of employment opportunities make it difficult for families to afford Christmas gifts.

“This is a huge event, very meaningful to our students. I just saw the backpacks that they were unloading. And I cannot wait for our kids to be coming to school with their brand new backpacks and all of the surprises that are inside of them,” DelSignore said.

Maj. Henry Graciani is the Divisional Commander for the Salvation Army, Alaska division. He said that the Salvation Army has a long-standing partnership with the Alaska National Guard to run Operation Santa Claus.

“It's an important thing. Every child is special, right? Every kid matters. And so it's important for children not just in the city, but in rural areas to get support to be remembered, to be thought of. And so here we are partnering with Alaska National Guard, Mattel, and Tastee Freez to help out the children of Tuluksak, and we're just grateful to be part of it. The Salvation Army is grateful to be a part of it,” Graciani said.

In addition to Santa, hundreds of servings of Tastee Freez ice cream were precious cargo on the flight. In fact, it was difficult to tell who had more people waiting in line: Santa or Tastee Freez.

"Do you want any toppings, chocolate, or caramel?" Tastee Freez representative Linwood Stowe asked an eager patron.

This reporter counted, and there were more people waiting for a Tastee Freez sundae than to sit on Santa’s lap.

Stowe said that he served over 200 sundaes in about an hour.

“Yeah, I love it. Coming out here, seeing the kids' faces, even the adults, or adults are probably more excited for ice cream than the kids. So it's pretty awesome to see,” Stowe said.  

Once everyone’s hands were all sticky, it was time to see Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Santa said he likes to get out early in Alaska. The terrain and the weather are good practice runs.

“Operation Santa Claus works really early because it's like train up for all the elves, you know. So we always have a training program. And sprinkling this around sort of helps people turn toward Christmas and be thinking about some really good things in their lives and appreciation for each other,” he said.

Santa was elusive when asked about their age or specifics regarding Operation Santa.

"Santa Claus was right there from the big very beginning at St. Mary's mission all those years ago. It seems like a galaxy far away, but it was a lovely thing. Mrs. Claus and I have been a couple for, we'll just leave it at decades," Santa said.

But not everyone was excited about Santa.

Some of the kids cried when families took pictures of them with Santa and Mrs. Claus, but Mrs. Claus remained unfazed.

“We love the children. We love the Elders. We even like the little ones who scream their heads off. We love them all,” Mrs. Claus said.

She felt that Operation Santa was a success.

“The kids all got their presents. They all got pictures, and sundaes, and candy. And we don't have to deal with a sugar high,” Mrs. Claus said.

The Clauses and all of the helper elves retreated back to the Black Hawk. They traveled to Golovin on Nov. 30, then to Fort Yukon on Dec. 1, with a final stop to Koyuk on Dec. 15.

Francisco Martínezcuello was the KYUK News Reporting Fellow from November 2022 through January 2024. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He is also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.
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