Santa Steers Blackhawk Sleigh to Newtok

Operation Santa Claus traveled to Newtok, AK on December 4, 2014. (Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK)
Operation Santa Claus traveled to Newtok, AK on December 4, 2014. (Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK)

Christmas is still three weeks out, but Santa Claus made an early visit to Newtok Thursday with the help of the Alaska Army and Air National Guard.

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The explanations for why Santa is on a different schedule range from needing reindeer rest to a new global delivery scheme, but in any case he’s with the Alaska Army National Guard as they launch a Blackhawk helicopter loaded with presents to Newtok. 45 minutes later, the payload for Operation Santa Claus is here.

The community of nearly 400 located west of Bethel and is eroding into the Ningaluk River, but for the students lined up in the school gym there was only one thing that matters. The kids chanted “Santa! Santa!”
A long line of kids waited to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus and get a present. Grant Kashatok, the Newtok Principal, explains the excitement’s been building for weeks, but not without some pause.

“We have a lot of skeptics out there. A lot of them are going to say ‘Are you for real?’ That kind of thing,” said Kashatok

Indeed, six year old Nevaeh George and her classmates had a few questions.

“We’re thinking it’s fake,” said George.

That fact may not be confirmed until closer to Christmas. Dina Banez, co-chair of the Operation Santa Claus Board, says the event is only possible with the support of a long list of businesses and non-profits, presumably run by elves.

“Every child from kindergarten to high school, will get a backpack. Inside are school supplies; papers, pens, highlighters, a water bottle, some trinkets along the way,” said Banez.

Plus the presents, and new books. To top it off, Rich Owens, the self-described Chief Ice Cream Tester for Tastee Freez in Anchorage is dishing out ice cream Sundays.

“It’s been intense, it’s been great. We’ve whipped out about 240 in 40 minutes,” said Owens.

The partnership between the Guard and Santa has been going for 58 years. In 1956, St. Marys was the first community to receive a boost from the Alaska Air National Guard. Brigadier General Tim O’Brien is the Commander of the Alaska Air National Guard.

“We have armories in almost all of the outlaying communities across the state. And we’re always looking for more goods folks. But there are your neighbors, these are your friends and neighbors,” said O’Brien.

Monica Kasayuli sat in the bleachers and enjoyed the afternoon with her kids.

“This is the happiest of their lives,” said Kasayuli.

The ice cream and presents are no doubt real. But is Santa in three weeks early? After most of the town had already sat down with Santa this reporter approached Mrs. Claus and her husband on behalf of the curious students.

“Just take your hand right here, shake his hand. What’s that feel like? Is that real?”, she asked. “And his heart’s as big as they come,” said Claus.

Shishmaref was also slated for a visit from Operation Santa Claus this weekend.