SHISHMAREF, Alaska – Volunteers in the Operation Santa Program and the Alaska National Guard brought Christmas to the remote Inupiat Eskimo community of Shishmaref, on Alaska's western coast.
Children received toys, coats, school supplies and the rare treats of apples and oranges along with ice cream during the Saturday visit.
"'Cause everybody loves ice cream," said Cheyenne Nayokpuk, a 17-year-old senior, when asked why anyone living 25 miles south of the Arctic Circle would want the cold treat.
It's the 58th year for the program to bring a little holiday cheer to remote Alaska 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.
"In many respects, some of these village areas are almost like Third World villages, and a lot people don't understand that," he 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."
Besides Shishmaref, the other village that received a visit this year was Newtok. Both are among Alaska's most eroded villages; both have plans to relocate, with Newtok further along in the process.
The National Guard provided a C-130 transport plane to take the volunteers, including a Salvation Army band, and gifts to Shishmaref, located about 600 miles northwest of Anchorage or about 100 miles east from Russia, across the Bering Strait in the Chukchi Sea.
"There is a lot of need in Shishmaref," said school Principal Ralph Watkins. "Having access to just some of your basic things is an event."
He said it takes effort to get to Shishmaref. For anyone wanting to get there from the Lower 48, it would require first a flight to Anchorage, followed by another airplane ride to Nome, followed by a small-plane ride to Shishmaref. It's a big deal for someone to come in and bring gifts, he said.
"It's all the kids have been talking about for the last week," he said.
Some community members drove their snowmobiles to the airstrip to greet the arriving airplane and wave to Santa and Mrs. Claus as they got off. The honored couple got a ride in a four-door pickup to the school for the big event, while other volunteers jumped in sleds and were pulled to town by snowmobiles.
Before Santa and Mrs. Claus made their appearance, the children of Shishmaref welcomed the visitors with Alaska Native dances.
Then Santa and Mrs. Claus came through a gym door to a standing ovation from those in the packed gym, including the estimated 300 children who would receive gifts.
Santa then met with every child — some more willing than others — before the children went down a line to receive a gift, backpack, a book and then ice cream.
Nellie Okpowruk, 18, was among the students standing in a long line to see Santa and Mrs. Claus. As for her gift, she had something specific on her wish list.
"I want a trip, a round-trip ticket to Oregon to see my cousin and her daughter," she said with a giggle.