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A Christmas surprise: Santa returns to Supai Village after a four-year hiatus

Santa and Mrs. Claus visit with Dalla Wescogame at Supai Village during the Marine League Charities, Toys for Tots fly-in Dec. 20. This was the first time the event had taken place in person since 2019 after the closure of the village because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Loretta James/WGCN)

Santa and Mrs. Claus visit with Dalla Wescogame at Supai Village during the Marine League Charities, Toys for Tots fly-in Dec. 20. This was the first time the event had taken place in person since 2019 after the closure of the village because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Loretta James/WGCN)

Finding the children who live in the village of Supai — nestled at the bottom of the Grand Canyon — has not always been an easy task for Santa, but this year, with the assistance of a talented pilot, Santa was able to leave his sleigh behind and make a grand entrance via helicopter to visit the children.

The rural residents were happy to see Santa fly into the canyon after a four-year hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Everybody in the community is excited,” said Dalla Wescogame, a Supai resident and mother of three. “The kids missed him, they were really feeling down because he was not here. So I am looking forward to seeing a lot of kids smile and just have Christmas cheer.”

Wescogame’s older children remember the regular visits from Santa by helicopter, but missed his return this year since they are now in high school and the Supai school only serves children from kindergarten through the eighth grade. However, her youngest son, along with his classmates, greeted Santa and Mrs. Claus in the lush valley.

Buried deep within the Grand Canyon, the Havasupai Reservation is one of the most remote reservations in the United States, and the village of Supai is home to just 200 residents. The only way to access the village is by horseback, helicopter or an 8-mile hike. This section of the Grand Canyon lies outside the boundary and jurisdiction of Grand Canyon National Park and the trailhead can be reached by car via Indian Road 18 — a 66-mile drive located off Historic Route 66 near Peach Springs, Arizona.

The reservation is known for its breathtaking turquoise-blue waterfalls — Havasu, Mooney, Navajo and Beaver Falls that throngs of tourists pay to visit each year. The tribe closed access to the falls in March 2020, during the pandemic, and only reopened with limited capacity in July 2023.

The last time Santa visited the village was in 2019, prior to COVID-19 and tribal closures.

The event is made possible through fundraising by the Marine League Charities and with support by Papillon Helicopter Tours and St. Mary’s Food Bank.

U.S. Marine Captain Hal Jensen started Operation Supai in 1996, and in 1998 Lieutenant Colonel James McGee and his wife Tina McGee took over coordination of the event.

“Hal was interested in the needy children that were less privileged,” Tina McGee has said about the event. “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.”

Coordination for the event began in October when a list of Havasupai children was collected by the Marine League Charities from the Havasupai School.

St. Mary’s Food Bank began organizing food boxes for families and Papillon Helicopters provided transportation. This included slinging in food and gifts in a net below the helicopter, flying in volunteers and Marines the day before the Santa visit, and then flying in Santa and Mrs. Claus in for the event.

Everyone’s goal is the same — to see children smile as they receive Christmas gifts and a visit from Santa. Making sure no child is overlooked is important to everyone.

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Children from Supai Village wait for their turn to visit Santa and Mrs. Claus Dec. 20. (Loretta James/WGCN)

It has always been a highlight for the village, according to Selena Ochoa, tribal council secretary.

“This is our first gathering in three years with everyone,” she said. “This has helped lift spirits… it’s the highlight of the year for us. It’s getting back to normal.”

Ochoa said the villagers are still acclimating to the return of tourists to the village. This change has brought about a shift from the solitude they’ve experienced over the past few years.

“People were more secluded during COVID,” she said. “We really missed Santa and seeing all the kids happy to see (him). During COVID they would just bring the presents, but we weren’t able to get together — and it is really good to be able to get together again.”

Makena Grounds, a 24-year-old mother who has lived in Supai her entire life, said the fly-in marks a special event in her and her children’s lives. She remembers when the fly-in took place when she was a child.

“They used to bring in big (military) helicopters,” she said.

This year, her daughter Heavenly was especially excited for Santa’s arrival.

“She was excited to see Santa and to wear her new dress,” she said.

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Makena Grounds (left) with her sister Lataizhia Havatone wait with their children Heavenly (bottom left), Steven (middle) and Ora to visit with Santa and Mrs. Claus during the fly-in Dec. 20 at Supai Village. (Loretta James/WGCN)

Santa and Mrs. Claus were also happy to be back, offering gifts and candy canes, and sharing laughter with children and their families.

“I’m so glad this program is coming back online. Everybody’s lives changed three years ago, but children never change,” Mrs. Claus said.

“The smiles and the excitement, the excitement on kid’s faces when they see me … it’s all about the kids,” Santa said.

Another highlight of the event is the participation of the U.S. Marines, who are flown in special for the event to represent the Marine League Charities. This year, two recent Marine Corps Boot Camp graduates Matthew Jeremiah Kelly and Andre Brindley proudly wore their dress blues as they helped hand out gifts to children and pose for photos.

“My experience here is honestly breathtaking. There’s no words to describe this beautiful place,” Kelly said. “This is a very rare occasion and every second I’m here I really appreciate.”

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U.S. Marine Andre Brindley offers a stuffed animal to a child at Supai Village Dec. 20. (Loretta James/WGCN)

More than 80 children, along with older youth received gifts provided by Toys for Tots.

St. Mary’s Food Bank also provided 144 emergency food boxes for approximately 103 households.

Each household received a box of culturally relevant food that was locally grown and sourced, as well as an additional box of produce, meat and water.

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Santa and Mrs. Claus prepare to depart Supai Village after visiting with children and their families Dec. 20. (Loretta James/WGCN)

Anyone interested in helping with the Marine League Charities: Toys for Tots program or other fundraising events throughout the year can do so by visiting nazmarineleaguecharities.com. The group hosts an annual raffle, poker run, and the FLAG2GC mountain bike ride, among other events.


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