Operation Santa brings holiday cheer to remote Alaskan villages

Operation Santa delivered winter coats, school supplies, and a global spotlight to two indigenous communities in Alaska that are at risk of displacement due to sea level rise.

Mark Thiessen/AP
Christmas toys and other supplies are loaded from a C130 military transport plane onto sleds being pulled by snowmobiles in Shishmaref, Alaska. The Alaska National Guard provided transport for the good Samaritan program Operation Santa, which took gifts and schools supplies to about 300 children in the Inupiat Eskimo community.

Volunteers brought a little Christmas cheer to a remote Inupiat Eskimo village on the western coast of Alaska on Saturday. 

For the past 58 years, the Operation Santa Program and the Alaska National Guard have brought gifts and other holiday treats to some of Alaska's most remote villages, where poverty is widespread. 

"For some of these kids, if it weren't for the toys we're delivering, they might not get a toy or anything at Christmas," said Maj. George Baker, divisional commander for The Salvation Army in Alaska.

Gifts included much needed coats and school supplies, as well as rarer treats such as oranges and apples.

"In many respects, some of these villages are almost like Third World villages, and a lot [of] people don't understand that," Major Baker said. "You think we're living in the United States, but for a lot of these folks, this makes Christmas for them. Were it not for [Operation] Santa, they might not have anything." 

The program is a months-long undertaking that requires the coordination of military personnel, many volunteers, presents, and even ice cream to communities 600 miles from Anchorage, Alaska's most populous city. To make the journey, volunteers use a C-130 transport plane to access the remote village of Shishmaref on Sarichef Island in the middle of in the Chukchi Sea across the Bering Strait.

Members from the American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, and Anchorage businesses worked with guardsmen to transport 2,500 pounds of donated goods from the plane to waiting sleds and snow machines at the runway in Shishmaref, Alaska Public Media reports. Shishmaref was one of two villages visited by Operation Santa this year, the other being Newtok

Both villages have experienced significant erosion as climate change has caused the sea level to rise. Both communities are in the process of trying to relocate. Newtok, which could be underwater by as soon as 2017, is farther along in the process. However, relocation is costly, with Newtok's relocation estimated to cost between $80 million and $130 million by the Army Corps of Engineers. In January of this year, five residents of Shishmaref traveled to Washington, D.C., to voice their concerns about climate change. 

The community welcomed the attention as much as the volunteers' generosity.

Donna Bennet, a third-grade teacher in Shishmaref, said the Operation Santa Program – and the accompanying media attention – is a good way for outsiders to understand some of the issues affecting Shishmaref. 

"It's exciting to see all of these people coming into Shishmaref so that they know that we're up here," Ms. Bennet said, according to Alaska Public Media. "We're up here, we do exist, we do have some issues that we need the outside world to see and to hear about, and if there's help available for different things we do need up here this is growing the awareness." 

Dennis Davis, a longtime Shishmaref resident, echoed the concerns that outsiders need to know about because their way of life is threatened. 

"It's all the villages on the coast that are dealing with this climate change issue," Mr. Davis said, according to Alaska Public Media. "It is affecting our culture in a big way as we speak now. The ocean isn't freezing, you start seeing sick sea animals and fish – that's our way of life." 

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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