KODIAK, Alaska — Six Santas, 16 elves, 14 pilots and 2,000 pounds of Christmas presents travelled to the seven remote villages of Kodiak Island, Alaska, from Nov. 28 to Dec. 7, 2022.
Santa to the Villages (S2V) has been a Kodiak holiday tradition for 46 years, but there is so much more than meets the eye when it comes to the planning and execution of this highly anticipated, week-long celebration.
Not only do the village children, teachers, and parents lose sleep thinking about Santa’s visit, but members of the Spouse’s Association of Kodiak (SAK) basically eat, breathe, and live all things S2V for months prior to the actual event.
SAK members work year-round to facilitate this historic 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.
“We start prepping around Thanksgiving for the following year,” said Katie Hamilton, a co-chair member of the SAK. “We shop Black Friday deals for board games, dolls, legos, puzzles and then we heavily shop during the day after Christmas. This helps us build our stock in wrapping paper, gift bags, and odds and ends for stocking stuffers.”
Hamilton and her fellow S2V chair members shop throughout the year for over 180 kids and 35 teachers throughout the villages. Around Halloween, they start asking people to donate candy so they can include sweet treats in the kids’ stockings.
Not only are the gifts individually selected for each child by age and gender, but the SAK members utilize a detailed spreadsheet to keep track of items each child received in previous years, so each year they receive something new that they want or need.
Phyllis Clough has been working for the Kodiak Island Borough School District for 42 years and has experienced both the anticipation and excitement of helping to coordinate Santa’s arrival to her hometown in Old Harbor.
“My favorite part of this event is seeing how happy the kids are when they see the Coast Guard approaching with the special guest and the joy it brings to the families,” said Clough. “My husband and I decide what foods to make for the helicopter crew and in the past have cooked fish pie (pirok), fry bread (alciit), smoked salmon and/or chicken. This event shows the love and caring of the Coast Guard and the spouse’s association.”
It all began in 1974, when a Coast Guard pilot noticed children in Kodiak’s remote villages had limited opportunities to interact with Santa and receive gifts. Jane Clark, a Coast Guard spouse, began coordinating the S2V project in 1976 when she and her husband, Capt. Charles Clark, were stationed in Kodiak.
At the height of this event, gifts were delivered to nearly 400 students across the island but, due to dwindling village populations, 145 children received gifts this year.
The spouses’ association names a new project coordinator each year and funding for the gifts comes heavily from the Stiles-Clark auction which is held every fall in Kodiak. The auction is named for Jane Clark and Lt. Cmdr. Jim Stiles, the pilot who recognized the need in the villages. Stiles died in a helicopter crash near Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in 1979.
With 47 members in the SAK and only 16 spots available, the organization came up with a nifty idea to decide who gets to dress up as an elf and fly with Santa to the villages. For each hour spent volunteering for any SAK event, the spouses get one entry into the drawing of being selected as an elf. This year, the organization had over 800 entries into the drawing.
“Hearing about S2V and how it reaches out to the children in the outer villages of Kodiak made me want to be a part of such a great program,” said Lydia Sandberg, a co-chair member on the S2V program. “The anticipation of seeing the kids meet Santa and receive their gifts is incredible. It’s truly an honor to see all our hard work culminate into one big Christmas party times seven.”
Hamilton and Sandberg noted that there are a lot of moving pieces that must come together to pull off a mission this large.
This year, Coast Guard Base Kodiak housing let the SAK borrow a housing unit that was turned into Santa’s workshop for six weeks leading up to the event. This allowed the ladies to prepare and store the gifts much easier, using every space from bedrooms to bathrooms to closets and pantries to organize the separate villages’ gifts.
While the event can be stressful at times, mainly due to the unpredictable Kodiak weather that can affect flight times and cause delays, Hamilton says she’s learned a lot in the process and plans to use her experiences to pass them to future chairs of the S2V mission.
“The kids look forward to this all year and they are so sweet and loving,” said Hamilton. “It’s such a fun, rewarding mission and we feel honored to be a part of it.”
What began as a simple idea has continued to grow into a time-honored tradition that is loved by one and all.