Inside the Gates: Operation Santa continues, despite pandemic

Alaska National Guard celebrates 65 years of holiday giving to rural villages
Published: Nov. 18, 2020 at 6:06 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Operation Santa first started in 1956, according to Command Chief Master Sgt. Winfield Hinckley, senior enlisted leader with the Alaska National Guard.

“It’s a time-honored tradition,” Hinckley said. “It started out with a call from Saint Mary’s, they ran out of money to buy gifts for children. They had floods and they had drought and with that, they couldn’t afford gifts for the kids so they put out a request.”

The Alaska National Guard heard the request and delivered the many donated gifts to the small village along the Yukon River. The tradition is still strong to this very day.

“For 65 years we have not missed a beat,” Hinckley said. “With COVID, it’s been a rough year but it won’t stop us from carrying out this mission.”

Over 65 years of history, the National Guard has delivered holiday cheer to hundreds of villages across Alaska. This year, for the first time ever, they will deliver gifts to Birch Creek, Stevens Village and Nanwalek.

“We understand the hardships the communities have endured,” Hinkley said. “We’re focusing on what we can do for them not what we can’t.”

The Alaska National Guard is not alone in its efforts. Over 50 years ago the Salvation Army joined the mission and has been there ever since.

“It’s such a unique experience,” Maj. John Brackenbury, divisional commander of Salvation Army Alaska Division said. “It’ll be different this year but the essence of the program is still there, providing a need that may not be there if this program was not operational.”

In years past, the National Guard and Salvation Army would arrive to villages with Santa and Mrs. Claus in tow. Due to COVID-19, the holiday heroes will not be making the trip. Instead, gifts will be delivered to the villages via a new CH-47 Chinook helicopter. The helo will unload the gifts and they will be dispersed to the village by community members.

“It is a little sad that they won’t experience the full event with Santa and Mrs. Claus,” Hinckley said. “Even though the children and families in the villages won’t see Santa this year, the holiday spirit will live on.”

“The kids get a backpack, school supplies, toys, a knit stocking cap,” Brackenbury said. “We’re also supplying games and books for the entire family because most people are inside now due to the pandemic.”

The place where most of the gift wrapping is done, in the past with 50 to 70 volunteers, is now done in small groups in a variety of shifts.

“This year we are really trying to rescue Christmas,” Brackenbury said. “We need everyone’s support in being able to make that happen.”

Programs like Operation Santa rely heavily on people giving. Not only in time but also in donations.

“Nothing is stopping Santa from getting these gifts out this year, not even COVID,” Brackenbury said.

The Salvation Army is also looking for volunteers to help during the Thanksgiving holiday in delivering meals.

The Alaska National Guard and Salvation Army have full support from Santa and Mrs. Claus. The partnership will start delivering the presents to Birch Creek and Stevens Village on Dec. 1 followed by Nanwalek on Dec. 8.

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