FAIRFIELD — After he hands the last Markham Elementary School kindergartner a bag of Christmas toys on Thursday, Chief Master Sgt. Mark Kloeppel, aka Santa Claus, will hang up his red suit.
“I don’t keep count any more. It has been so many years,” Kloeppel said of how many times he and his crew of Air Force Reserve assistant elves have visited local kindergartens to ask the children about their Christmas wishes and distribute bags of presents.
After 36 years with the 349th Air Mobility Wing, which organizes the visits dubbed Operation Teddy Bear, Kloeppel said he is retiring and handing the role to someone else.
“It is really fun,” Kloeppel said of the filling the role of St. Nick. “I love the kids’ expressions when they get the gifts and we get to give back to the community.”
Kloeppel has heard requests from teddy bears for a sister to one child in a previous Christmas visit who said he wanted to get his father a truck because the family’s vehicle had broken down.
The 349th reservists visited the kindergartners at Cleo Gordon Elementary School on Tuesday. The day before, they visited Anderson Elementary School in Dixon. They will also visit Fairview Elementary School on Wednesday and then Markham in Vacaville on Thursday.
Operation Teddy Bear is a longstanding holiday tradition with the 349th Air Mobility Wing, started about 12 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. Then the children are invited to each make Christmas requests to Kloeppel and are given bags of treats and gifts by the helper elves – 349th reservists wearing elf helpers’ hats.
“It is nice to see how happy the children are,” Master Sgt. Dana Rhodes said.
Cleo Gordon teacher Rozanne Helms had one of the four classes that got to meet Santa and get the bags of goodies.
“It went great. It was wonderful,” Helms said. “The kids just twinkle for the rest of the day and it is really something that they remember.”
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