GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - While most volunteers fly or hike in from Hilltop, the tipping off point for travelers into Supai Village located deep inside the western interior of the Grand Canyon, a special contigent, consisting of three Marines, Santa Claus and a determined and courageous woman, took off from the town of Tusayan on the chilly morning of Dec. 16. Their mission - to create Christmas memories for one of the country's most isolated Native American tribes - the Havasupai.
"It's good all the way around - any way you look at it," said Dick McCallum, who played Santa this year. "Everybody's pretty excited."
U.S. Marine Captain Hal Jensen started Operation Supai in 1996. In 1998, Lieutenant Colonel James McGee and his wife Tina took over coordination of the event.
"Hal was interested in the needy children that were less privileged," Tina McGee said. "He was very aware, being in northern Arizona, of all the Native American communities. He felt that he not only wanted to help local children, but he wanted the outreach to be to isolated tribes and villages that needed Christmas as well."
After her husband's death and as a tribute to other Marines and to her husband, Tina continued to coordinate the event.
Since 1996, the operation has grown, taking Tina the better part of a year to plan. Each year Toys for Tots, a non-profit organization of the United States Marine Corps and a battalion of volunteers help deliver Christmas to the Supai by flying in presents, food, backpacks and other essentials for the village.
Master Sgt. Gary King, a logistics specialist with the Environmental Services Division Reserve Unit out of Phoenix has been helping with logistics for Operation Supai since 2001.
For King, the event is a special opportunity to connect with the Supai community.
"It's something to give back," he said. "Hopefully the kids will look at us and we'll be a good role model. Hopefully they look forward to it."
Master Sgt. Charles Peworski, also with the Environmental Services Division Reserve Unit, said for him flying into Supai is about delivering the Christmas spirit and representing the U.S. Marines.
"It's a chance to give back and show a role model of the U.S. Marine Corps," Peworski said. "We are often so far out and not visible, so it's nice to be visible, show a presence and give back to the community."
One of Toys for Tots partners, St. Mary's Food Bank, has helped with the operation since 1998.
Between Dec. 15 and 16, around 13 volunteers flew or hiked into the village to help out with the event, including several volunteers from St. Mary's Food Bank.
The entire tribe came out to welcome Santa and his helpers, who handed out gifts to around 150 village children followed by a shared meal of hot dogs and drinks, provided by St. Mary's Food Bank.
"There were even lots of little babies dressed up to see Santa," said Mariah Alexander, community relation's coordinator for St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance. "When Santa got off the helicopter I could hear all the little kids from Head Start yelling, 'Santa! Santa!' everyone was really excited."
Operation Supai has been a long-standing tradition for the U.S. Marines along with volunteers and coordinators. Alexander said the residents of Supai Village look forward to their annual visit from Santa.
"There were women there that brought their babies who had received gifts when they were kids," Alexander said. "The parents were really excited. It was really nice because the kids got the backpacks too with toothbrushes and hygiene products. We had a bunch of footballs, soccer balls and basketballs that we gave out at the end."
The Exchange Club of Flagstaff partnered with Toys for Tots to provide the hygiene products and writing utensils as well as backpacks for the children. Food collected by St. Mary's included holiday items as well as other non-perishable foods.
One of the most exciting part of the operation, for the kids, is having Santa and the Marines fly in to see them. In years past, the Marines used their own helicopters, however, in 2012, the CH-46 Sea Knights helicopters, used by the Marine Corps for the event, were replaced by an Osprey. The Osprey with its large tilt rotor takes off and lands like a helicopter, but once airborne, its engine rotates, converting the aircraft into a high-powered airplane. Because of the high impact winds created by the Osprey the Marines are no longer able to land at the village. For the last three years, Papillion Helicopters, out of Tusayan, has donated its services and time to the operation.
Alexander said getting the food, backpacks, supplies and volunteers into the Canyon took over 18 trips from the Hilltop location, in addition to Santa and the Marines flying in from Tusayan.
"We were hoping it would be with the Marine helicopters because we can fit more pallets in them and we could do fewer trips, but it didn't work out this year," Alexander said.
The operation takes the better part of a week to pull off, not to mention over a year's worth of planning leading up to the event. For Alexander and other volunteers and coordinators, the event is worth every bit of planning and hard work that goes into it.
"It is really important because it is such a rural community," Alexander said. "Working with St. Mary's out of the Flagstaff office, we have agencies all over the Navajo Nation but I would say Havasupai is our most rural distribution, because we can't even drive the truck all the way to it. We are literally having to fly in with a helicopter to reach people."
The only other way of getting to the village is by horse, mules or foot.
Since last year's delivery, St. Mary's started a bi-monthly food distribution at the village.
"We coordinated with the senior center and every other month we drop off a hundred boxes at Hilltop and then they fly them into the village," Alexander said.
For Alexander, one of the best parts of Operation Supai is seeing the children's reactions when Santa lands in his state of the art sleigh and begins handing out presents.
"One kid was asking if he was the real Santa and Santa said, 'yes, don't you see my beard?' and the little boy said, 'well, can you go to my mom's house and tell Alex that you're real?'" she said.