Christmas came early this week to nearly 300 students attending school in the Yup'ik Eskimo village of Kwethluk (KWEETH-luck).
Thanks to the volunteer program coordinated by the Alaska National Guard, Santa and Mrs. Claus greeted children in the western Alaska community and took pictures with them before helper elves handed out gifts.
"Santa and Mrs. Claus is not something that normally happens out there for them. It's commonplace for us here in Anchorage or the bigger towns to be able to go to the malls and see Santa," said Jo Katkus, the chairwoman of Operation Santa Claus, as she and 24 other volunteers waited early Wednesday morning at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to load a military C130 cargo plane for the 300 mile flight.
"For them, it's a real extra treat," she said.
The fact the visit even happened is a testament to the adaptability of Alaskans, whose flight plans change at any given moment because of weather or mechanical issues. Flying _ oftentimes in bad weather _ is required in Alaska since most of communities are off the state's limited road system.
The original plan was to fly the volunteers in the military transport to the western Alaska hub community of Bethel, and then take the National Guard's Blackhawk helicopter the last 12 miles to Kwethluk.
But a mechanical issue grounded the helicopter, making it appear the season's second scheduled visit to the Yup'ik community would be a bust. A mechanical failure doomed the earlier planned visit last month.
Instead of giving up, 10-year program veteran Dina Banez went to the armory's waiting area and dug out her cell phone. Within minutes, she found a local air taxi company, Grant Aviation, willing to donate a flight to take about a third of the volunteers and gifts to Kwethluk, despite wind gusts of up to 50 mph.
This wasn't even the most creative fix she and others have arranged since the program began in 1956.
"We've gone on dog sled from different villages, snowmachines, ATVs, pickup trucks, whatever it is. We adapt and overcome, and it's all to make the kids' Christmas and bring a little joy to them," Banez said.
Banez and others applauded when the pilot set the small commuter plane down on the small airstrip outside Kwethluk.
The visitors arriving in the school multipurpose room, where lunch was just finishing up, created a buzz throughout the school _ not to mention the entire community after an announcement was sent village-wide.
"Not only the kids and the parents came, but we had the elders and a lot of the community members participating, as well," said assistant principal Zach Bastoky, who was wearing a green kupsuk, a traditional Alaska Native smock made for him by another instructor.
Everyone was excited "because we hardly get Operation Santa, and it's fun for the kids," said senior Alicia Michael, 17.
Teachers, some speaking in English, others Yup'ik, paraded their students into to the gym, where photos were taken with Santa and Mrs. Claus. Some of the smaller children had broad smiles on their faces, other left Santa's lap in tears, but those were dry as they then lined up to receive their gifts.
"They get scared, some of them, the first time seeing him (Santa)," said parent Roy Michael, adding the program is good not only for children, but families.
Students returned to their classroom, only to be replaced by older students. The Salvation Army helped arrange for gifts for all children, up through age 18.
Since two-thirds of the volunteers remained in Bethel, plans had to be changed on the fly. After the older kids received their presents, the younger children came back to receive more gifts, this time a new backpack filled with school supplies, a toy, a toothbrush and floss.
Long gone are the days when children received bags of candy, and the toothbrushes are intended to promote good dental care in rural Alaska, where there are few dentists.
Children were also given a new book, which Banez said is the highlight for many children, and also received an apple and an orange each on the way out of the gym _ a treasure in western Alaska, where fresh fruit is an expensive luxury.