349 santa, 12/17/12

Cleo Gordon Elementary School kindergartner Abraham Garcia, 5, thinks of what to ask for Christmas from Santa, played by Chief Master Sgt. Mark Kloeppel, during a visit by the 349th Air Mobility Wing as part of their annual Operation Teddy Bear, Monday morning. Also helping are Airman Miguel Reyrao and Senior Airman Talavou Nuusa, right. (Brad Zweerink/Daily Republic)


349th spreads holiday cheer with Operation Teddy Bear

By From page A1 | December 19, 2012

FAIRFIELD — When asked what he wanted for Christmas, one Anderson Elementary School kindergartner whispered in the ear of Chief Master Sgt. Mark Kloeppel – aka Santa Claus – that he wanted to get his father a truck because the family’s current one had broken down.

On Monday, the first Cleo Gordon Elementary School child made a similar, but more fillable request, asking if Santa/Kloeppel would provide a teddy bear so the child could give it to his sister.

“That I was able to provide,” said Kloeppel, who has been donning Saint Nick’s garb and visiting local elementary schools for the past five years as part of the 349th Air Mobility Wing’s annual Operation Teddy Bear.

The two children’s stories are part of a nice trend that Kloeppel said he is seeing more, that more youngsters are asking for presents for other family members rather than for themselves.

Cleo Gordon Elementary was the second of four elementary schools the Air Force Reservists visited, after their visit to Anderson Elementary in Dixon.

Called Operation Teddy Bear, the visits are a long-standing holiday tradition with the 349th Air Mobility Wing, started about 10 years ago by two civilian members of the wing with a visit to a single school. It was grown since, with the 349th collecting donations from throughout the wing and from the community to buy the teddy bears, gifts and snacks.

Each of the visits starts in the school’s multipurpose room, with a show by the base’s honor guard, demonstrating how to fold and unfold a flag. On Monday, kindergartners applauded when the flag was unfurled and then asked questions of the honor guard members that ranged from what the flag’s colors meant to if the folded flag can be slept on like a pillow. The honor guard member politely replied, “no.”

Kloeppel was accompanied by a dozen other reservists wearing elf helpers’ hats and carrying the bags that included a teddy bear, booklet, an orange and other snacks.

“We go to the schools where the kids’ families are not so well off and give them a better Christmas,” Kloeppel said.

Every time, Kloeppel asks those who have been good to raise their hands. He gets a full complement of raised hands in response.

When he talks about his reindeer, he makes sure to point out he left them at Travis. One of his predecessor Santas said he landed his reindeer on the school roof, only to have several of the children dash outside to catch a glimpse of the legendary animals. That Santa covered himself by adding his reindeer were very good at hiding.

Master Sgt. Dana Phodes loves being a part of Operation Teddy Bear, “because of all the cute kids and seeing the joy that they get from this.”

Teacher Rozanne Helms had one of the four classes that got to meet Santa and get the bags of goodies.

“This is great. We have had this here for several years and it is a wonderful, wonderful program,” Helms said. “They do a great job and we appreciate them coming to our school.”

Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.

Ian Thompson

Ian Thompson

Ian Thompson has worked for the Daily Republic longer than he cares to remember. A native of Oregon and a graduate of the University of Oregon, he pines for the motherland still. He covers Vacaville and Travis Air Force Base for the Daily Republic. He is an avid military history buff, wargamer and loves the great outdoors.

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