Melania Trump focuses on children, thanks service members at military base in Alaska

First lady Melania Trump landed Friday morning at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage for a jet refueling stop that coincided with a military celebration.

A security-screened crowd packed into Arctic Oasis Community Center, which serves the base as a family gym, indoor playground, hair salon, arcade and more. Trump arrived with a traveling team that included step son-in-law Jared Kushner on an Air Force jet from Beijing on their way back to Washington, D.C., after touring Asia with President Donald Trump.

The first lady spent less than an hour at a preplanned event to celebrate families of active-duty members that included arts and crafts, stories and games. It occurred on the observed holiday for Veterans Day, which falls on Saturday this year. Kushner stopped in as well, but was not front and center the way Melania Trump was.

"JBER Welcomes The First Lady," said a hand-painted red banner decorated with stars taped to the lockers.

People held their phones over their heads and crushed up against barricades to document the moment. Some were trying for good shots of their children, handpicked to show the first lady activities including making rainbows in jars and creating decorative fish from plastic jewels and CDs. Retired military people came and active duty ones too.

The first lady was dressed Alaska chic, in a long puffy coat with a subtle plaid print and heeled boots. The Daily Mail described the coat as a $2,700 Ralph Lauren design.

Secret Service agents watched the crowd as the crowd watched Trump.

Around the center, 20 or so activity stations were set up, and Trump went to seven of them.

Teachers and families participating were told Thursday that the first lady would stop by. Except for the security, the event didn't change, organizers said.

"For the longest time, we knew it was going to be someone special," said James Yracheta, youth programs director.

People cheered and briefly clapped as the first lady walked into the main room.

The goal was to provide educational opportunities, showcase what the base offers in preschool, child care and after-school programs, "and to literally honor our military families," said Tammy De Benedetto, who is flight chief – the person in charge — over JBER child and youth services.

Trump listened as older kids learned about the density of different liquids and as children read to service dogs through a lauded literacy program called Paws to Read.

What's density? Yracheta asked one group, with the first lady watching.

"The weight!" they answered.

They layered corn syrup, Dawn dish soap and water dyed red, heaviest one first, creating patriotic rainbows.

"The kids thought they were making rainbows in a jar but really we were teaching them science," Yracheta said. "Physical science, environmental science, and mathematics, because we were doing measurements."

The first lady was amazed at the project's educational elements, he said.

All along the way, she had the same reaction, De Benedetto said.

[Photos: First lady Melania Trump in Alaska]

She sat at tiny tables with little ones doing crafts and playing. "What are you doing?" she asked one group of preschoolers with a smile. She rolled homemade colored dough into balls and played catch. She tried out a handmade musical instrument that was like a kazoo.

At one craft table, children were using glue sticks to attach colored plastic jewels and cut paper to CDs for instant art fish. Trump made her own, too, with blue and aqua, white and pink jewels and yellow fins and tail. She pretended to give chase to other fish with it.

She left her creation with teacher Diane Nickell, who said it will go on display in her classroom.

That station spun out of a reading of the book "The Rainbow Fish" and its message about sharing. An initially reluctant fish finally agrees to share his scales with others, in the story.

The first lady shook hands with many in the crowd. She thanked military members for their service, and the child and family program leaders for supporting them.

"Delightful. What a genuine lady. Very humble," De Benedetto said. "With every child, with every student, with every staff – she interacted. Just a wonderful lady."

About 14,000 soldiers, airmen and civilian contractors operate out of the massive base. There are an additional 15,000 family members.

Some 1,800 service members from JBER are currently deployed around the globe. Most — 1,200 — are in Afghanistan.

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.