Most people envision the North Pole as a tiny spot on top of the world that is cold, snowy and comes complete with Santa, flying reindeer and little elves.
Take out the flying reindeer and the location and the picture is pretty accurate - at least for Church members who live in North Pole, Alaska.Located about 1,750 miles south of the real North Pole, the town of North Pole, Alaska, population 1,640, is cold and snowy.
And the youth from the North Pole Ward in the Fairbanks Alaska Stake are proof that "little elves" do exist.
Young men and young women from the ward busy themselves each Christmas, gathering food to place in baskets for the needy and this year has been no different.
The youth collect food for needy ward members as well as for "Santa's Clearing House," a community organization that provides food, toys and clothing for needy residents.
Once the goods are collected, volunteers dress up as Santa Claus and fly in bush planes to bring Christmas to those living in Alaska's isolated villages.
With the North Pole being the official home of Santa Claus, the spirit of giving and helping is really strong in the community, said Bishop James T. Nanto, North Pole Ward bishop for almost two years.
"The youth are really generous in coming out and participating in these activities," he explained. "This teaches them to be unselfish and to give of their time and to be thoughtful of other people."
Located 14 miles southeast of Fairbanks, the small town of North Pole comes alive at Christmas time - even in the minus-20 to minus-40 degree weather and short daylight hours. Spindly spruce trees dot the area, proof that it's tough - even for trees - to survive the severe winter season.
But according to Bishop Nanto, "The winters don't seem so long and cold when so much love and warmth comes from the members of the ward."
"Whether its shoveling snow, baby sitting or painting scenes on the nursery toy box, there is a constant drive for continued service from the North Pole Ward," said Sister Edna J. Robertson, acting public communications director of the ward. "The members have a reputation for being close knit and family oriented, striving to be `of one heart.' "
Young women in the ward recently spent time putting together packets of warning labels and first aid information for Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. The free packets are given to the public upon request at the hospital.
The young women also finished a quilt recently to warm the body as well as the spirit of one needy family in the ward.
Not to be outdone, the ward's Scouts participated in the National Food Drive at Thanksgiving to help those who were without food. This year they collected enough canned goods to fill three station wagons.
Together the youth helped clean a Fairbanks community center after it burned several months ago. The youth collected and sorted clothes and organized food shelves to help the center get back into operation.
"Everybody is always doing something," Sister Robertson commented.
Members have been a close group since the early 1970s when their first branch meetings were held in a vacant dormi
tory at Eielson Air Force Base in the North Pole area.
By 1978, with about 500 members, the branch became a ward and dedicated its new building and began holding Church meetings at the North Pole Ward meetinghouse.
There are currently about 565 members in the North Pole Ward and 250 members in the Eielson Ward - both meeting in the North Pole building. Many are military personnel.
It's not unusual for members to come to Church in bunny boots, heavy parkas and fur hats during the cold and dark winters, Sister Robertson said. "Thoughts of pioneer days whirl through the minds of ward members as they challenge extreme weather conditions to do the Lord's will," she added.
With survival being a way of life for Alaskans, Sister Robertson said ward members are encouraged to learn emergency preparedness, build up their food storage and learn budgeting principles.
With the wide open spaces of Alaska, travel also becomes an issue. Some members travel 40 miles to attend Church. One family spends its summers gold mining in the area and travels 160 miles to attend Church, she explained.
But members in the area aren't discouraged in doing the Lord's work, Sister Robertson quickly added.
"Alaska can be like heaven on earth. Everyone is so giving - in and out of the Church. The way the environment is, you've got to be close to one another to survive."