Mission to Minto: Operation Santa Claus brings holiday cheer to rural communities

Published: Dec. 6, 2022 at 10:17 AM AKST|Updated: Dec. 6, 2022 at 4:40 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) -The holiday season is in full swing, and Santa is gearing up for a busy couple of weeks.

He did get a head start this year by teaming up with the Salvation Army and the Alaska National Guard bringing gifts to rural communities across the state.

As the jet touched down at Eielson Air Force Base in Late November, a team unloaded packages filled with toys to give to families in Minto, Alaska.

The Alaska National Guard and the Salvation Army unload the jet at Eielson Air Force Base
The Alaska National Guard and the Salvation Army unload the jet at Eielson Air Force Base(Julie Swisher)

Minto was one of three communities chosen this year to participate in Operation Santa Claus. A time-honored tradition that spreads the Christmas spirit to rural villages across the state. Other communities included Scammon Bay and Nuiqsut.

This tradition all started in 1956 when a flood devastated the town of St. Marys. Nuns at the mission were worried they wouldn’t have toys for the children, having used all their funds to bring food in for the orphanage. A letter was sent to the Alaska National Guard and they were able to deliver goods to the community. Since that time, Operation Santa Claus has evolved into a yearly holiday institution, bringing toys to various communities every year.

Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Kirby is with the Alaska National Guard out of Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson (JBER). He said this was his first time traveling to Minto. He had spent the prior week wrapping presents for the Salvation Army and normally works behind the scenes.

“The Salvation Army is a great partner in this,” said Kirby. “They have been working with us for over 50 years. They get all the gift donations, and they coordinate all the boxes.” He added. “They truly just have a heart to love others around them by spreading Christmas cheer and Christmas joy all over Alaska.”

The Alaska National Guard then loaded up the packages into two helicopters. Santa gave his reindeer a day off as he caught a ride in the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter.

The community of Minto is located 50 air miles west of Fairbanks and is one of the few villages in the district with road access.

“I feel like I am in a Hallmark movie,” said Kirby. “That is what I keep saying but that’s how good it is to be out here and to be able to do this.”

When the plane touched down, residents of the community were there to help assist with the drop-off.

“If you could define Christmas spirit, I think this is defining Christmas spirit,” he said.

The crew then traveled to the school, where the kids were patiently waiting to see why there were helicopters flying above the town.

Curious children peek out the windows at the school
Curious children peek out the windows at the school(Julie Swisher)

School teachers lined up the children and brought them into the gym where they awaited their surprise.

This year, Operation Santa Claus brought gifts for 70 children in Minto.

“Seeing this all right now it is amazing,” said Jannah Buendia. She is a Senior Airman with the Alaska National Guard out of JBER. “I can’t wait for these children to see it all.”

Buendia works with the logistics Readiness Squadron (LRS) and said it has taken months to plan this event, but it was all worth it. “It can take months of planning,” she said. “Especially planning what areas we are going to and all the aircraft we are going to be using.”

Buendia added there has to be coordination with various organizations to make sure there are enough aircraft, and personnel, just to make sure everything is accounted for.

“It was definitely worth it,” she added. “It is definitely rewarding. It is nice to see the whole community come together to be able to provide for the children and celebrate.”

Wendy Zorea has been with the Salvation Army since she was 7 years old. She said she became a member because the Salvation Army reached out to her family when she was young, and this is her way of giving back. “It is a really good feeling to know that you really are doing something good for other people,” she said.

Holding a microphone she ushered families and children into the gym where she sang songs, as they awaited for Santa to make his grand appearance. As the school children sang to the tune of “Jingle Bells,” Santa walked into the center stage and the crowd roared.

Johnathan David is the First Chief of Minto. He said this was a surprise they have been keeping from the children, and they did a pretty good job. “They were wondering what the choppers were all about,” he said. “They were wondering what was going on until it was time to come into the gym.”

Families had a special treat of ice cream sundaes donated by the Tastee-Freez company, followed by gifts. The kids were called up one by one by their family name.

Girl enjoys her ice cream sundae
Girl enjoys her ice cream sundae(Julie Swisher)

“The Salvation Army and the National Guard was thankful enough to come in and have a little surprise for the kids,” said David. “This was really helpful, really enjoyed it, The kids were happy for it and we really do appreciate all the time they put into this.”

Presents were followed by pictures with Santa Claus, a Congo line, and a potlach.

Little did anyone know members of the community had a surprise of their own. The men gathered around Lt. Colonel Kirby and threw him into the air. This is a sign of respect and honor.

Lt. Col. Kirby gets thrown into the air
Lt. Col. Kirby gets thrown into the air(Julie Swisher)

“I have never experienced anything like that before, but it was a rush,” said Kirby. “I think I will continue that tradition with others. They say it’s a big honor, so it’s super humbling.”

After the fun, food, and festivities, the team packed up the gear and headed back to Eielson.

Families in the community were thankful for the presents, and not only those wrapped up in boxes but for the warm presence of those who were able to give back in a very special way.

This was another successful mission for Operation Santa Claus.

Santa stands in front of the UH-60 Blackhawk Helicopter
Santa stands in front of the UH-60 Blackhawk Helicopter(Julie Swisher)