GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — Santa took a short leave from the North Pole last week to deliver Christmas goodies to Grand Canyon communities with the help of the Toys for Tots Marine Corps elves.
Dick McCallum has donned the iconic suit for the flight to Supai for the last 20 years — seeing the kids eager to greet Santa has always had a special with two Marines from a reserve unit out of Phoenix, he’s prepared to deliver Christmas to one of the most remote — and hot — places in the country.
“We used to fly down on the big CH-46 helicopters, with the two propellers,” he said. “We’d take everything with us right then and unload it with all the kids as soon as we landed.”
Although the holiday party is now flown in by Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, it’s still a sight to behold — Santa hopping out of a bright red helicopter.
Operation Supai was established in 1996 by U.S. Marine Capt. Hal Jensen, and in 1998 was taken over by Lt. Col. James McGee and Tina, who continues to coordinate the yearly event in honor of her late husband. McGee works with the Marine Corps Charity League and St. Mary’s Food Bank to have gifts and a holiday dinner brought to the village — it’s a yearly tradition she plans to continue.
Cpl. Bernadette Barron and Gunnery Sergeant Trung Tran served as Santa’s Supai escort for the first time, although both have been previously involved with the Toys for Tots program. Although Barron is from Phoenix, it was her first time landing at the bottom of the Canyon.
“I’m excited, nervous and a little afraid of falling,” she said.
Although it is the most exotic, Supai wasn’t the only Grand Canyon community served by Santa and his elves. Ricky Roberts, who has been working with the Toys for Tots program for the last decade, has made it his personal goal to help bring a little extra cheer to needy families above the rim as well.
Robert attended Grand Canyon School, where both of his parents were teachers. He graduated in 1977. After a tour in the Navy, Roberts returned to Flagstaff and began working at Northern Arizona University.
Roberts said the school provides a list of children from the free and reduced lunch program and those children get invitations to the party, where they can meet Santa, have cookies and milk and receive a bag of gifts for the family. Gift bags that are left over are given to the Grand Canyon postmaster, who then arranges for families who weren’t able to make it to the party to receive a bag. Bags are also delivered to Supai Village.
Roberts said he was grateful for the community support he’s received each year.
“Best Western is so great for providing the space and the cookies,” he said. “And Papillon flies all of the gifts and food down to Supai for free.”
Paula Stefani, who has been involved with Toys for Tots in Grand Canyon for the last eight years, said the Flagstaff organization serves around 10,000 kids in Coconino County every year. They also decided to include Navajo County this year.
Each child receives four gifts — a large toy, a small toy and two other items like new gloves and books. When you do that math, it adds up to a lot of presents and some marathon shopping trips.
Only about 5 percent of the gifts are donated, Stefani said.
The rest of the gifts are actually purchased by the organization with money from fundraisers held throughout the year. Stefani also brings extra gifts for children who may not have had an opportunity to attend Santa’s party.
“There are some people who are under the radar — they homeschool or they don’t get the message,” she said. “We always pack extra for those children.”
It’s a labor of love for Stefani, Roberts, McGee, McCallum and all the other volunteers who spend months making sure Grand Canyon communities have an extra merry Christmas.
“Seeing the kids is just the best thing,” McCallum said.