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    Alaska’s Santa to the Villages tradition lives on amidst COVID-19 pandemic

    Alaska’s Santa to the Villages tradition lives on amidst COVID-19 pandemic

    Photo By Petty Officer 1st Class Ali Blackburn | A family holds bags of gifts and treats given to them by Santa (a Coast Guard Air...... read more read more



    Story by Petty Officer 1st Class Ali Blackburn 

    U.S. Coast Guard District 17

    Did you know that Santa has been visiting remote Alaskan villages for 45 years now? Yes, the Santa Clause! His elves are U.S. Coast Guard aviators and his sled is an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, so it stands to reason that his reindeer are the all-weather twin engines propelling that bright orange bird through the blustery, winter skies.

    Santa to the Villages has been part of Base Kodiak’s holiday tradition since 1974 when a Coast Guard pilot noticed the children in Kodiak’s remote villages had limited opportunities to interact with Santa and receive gifts.

    However, amidst the 2020 pandemic, Santa’s presence at the villages is vastly different from the days of yore.

    Santa would normally descend from the sky, hanging out of the helo while waving at the excited school children, parents and educators on the ground below. He would be greeted with hugs and warm welcomes and he would personally deliver gifts, cookies and food to the villagers. Kids would sit on his lap and get their photos taken and the aircrew would enjoy a community-style potluck dinner. The event would be the talk of the villages for months before it happened.

“It’s a very exciting event that everybody enjoys every year,” said Sarah Fish, a mother to four children who attend school in Chiniak. “ I grew up in Kodiak and moved to Chiniak 10 years ago and all of my children have experienced. It’s something we all very much look forward to during the holiday season.”

    Every December, Coast Guard helicopters carry teams of Santas and elves to seven communities on the island of Kodiak - Ouzinkie, Port Lions, Ahkiok, Karluk, Chiniak and Larsen Bay. According to a 2019 article written by Iris Samuels in the Kodiak Daily Mirror, at the height of the program, “gifts were delivered to around 400 students across the island but dwindling village populations have led to smaller deliveries.”

    This year, those involved in the deliveries had to improvise and find a way to continue spreading cheer while keeping Santa, the villagers and the aircrews safe during a worldwide pandemic. Practicing social distancing was the key to protecting and maintaining the health of the villagers.

    “Santa to the villages has always been something that brings joy and hope to our students throughout the villages,” said Peggy Azuyak, principal at Chiniak School and director of rural schools in Kodiak. “It allows the families to provide presents for the students regardless of how far from town they are. We have worked very hard to make it safe this year by socially distancing, wearing masks and gloves while distributing items and allowing family groups to pick up presents together.”

    Gifts were delivered by the aircrews without any interaction with the local community members in order to reduce concerns of spreading COVID-19. They flew over each village as Santa waved from the helicopter door.

    While the aircrew and the big man dressed in red tend to invoke the most attention, it’s important to remember those coordinating behind the scenes of this popular event.

    Members of the Spouses’ Association of Kodiak work year round to facilitate this historic community outreach program, coordinating with the rural school staff members, the community of Kodiak, Coast Guard Air Station and Base Kodiak personnel and other local supporters to raise funds, collect donations and help Santa deliver toys, stockings, hygiene products, hand-knitted items, fruit and books. The gifts are individually selected for each child by age and gender.

    Jane Clark, a Coast Guard spouse, began coordinating the Santa project in 1976 when she and her husband, Capt. Charles Clark, were stationed in Kodiak.

    The spouses’ association names a new project coordinator each year and funding for the gifts comes from the Stiles-Clark auction which is held every fall in Kodiak. The auction is named for Jane Clark and Lt. Cmdr. Jim Stiles, a pilot who came up with the idea of bringing gifts to the village children. Stiles died in a helicopter crash near Cape Cod in 1979.

    “Regardless of how old the kids are, even when they become adults, it’s always such a joy to see Santa come in on a helicopter,” said Brian Aaron, secondary lead teacher, Chiniak School.

    The long-held tradition of Santa to the Villages will not easily falter, and it’s continued success is paramount in order to keep hope in the hearts of the Alaskan villagers and the magic of Christmas alive and well.



    Date Taken: 12.27.2020
    Date Posted: 02.12.2021 15:41
    Story ID: 389014
    Location: KODIAK, AK, US 

    Web Views: 32
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