How Santa Claus Brought Two Stratford Alumni Together

About eight years ago, Scott Chalkley '05 started getting calls from random numbers in Macon. It turns out that if you Google Santa’s phone number, you find one that has the same first seven digits as his. So when children from middle Georgia would try to call Santa, it would dial out as a local number. Over the years, Scott has received hundreds of calls and voicemails from kids and adults looking for Mr. Claus.

"I started to imitate Santa Claus, and they'd tell me what they want and hope that they were on the good list, and I'd encourage them to stay there," Chalkley told Norah O’Donnell in a news feature for CBS News. 

After years of listening to kids’ wishes, he gave up on being Scott and changed his voicemail greeting to a full-time Santa. Today, Scott has channeled that into the For a Good Claus project. Visitors to the For a Good Claus website can listen to the voicemails he receives. There is also a prompt to make a donation to The Merrie Christmas Project. 

“Our involvement with The Merrie Christmas Project was serendipitous. My friend Shannon Kaplan McCauley ’04 lost her sister, Merrie, so her family decided to honor her by creating The Merrie Christmas Project,” shares Scott. “When I read about it, I called Shannon and told her about my own Santa Claus connection and the website we were building. We both agreed it would be the perfect way to get some more attention paid to The Merrie Christmas Project, and it all just clicked. Now I've started receiving Santa calls from all over the country, not just Macon.”

The Merrie Christmas Project was founded by Shannon’s parents, Stratford alumnus Mike Kaplan ’71 and his wife, Nancy, following the sudden passing of their 45-year-old daughter, Merrie. Merrie was one of those rare individuals who loved and was loved by everyone who knew her. She had been born with a rare genetic condition called Williams Syndrome, but that never stopped her from living a life centered around others. There was no time of year that brought Merrie more joy than the Christmas season. 

“I am probably the only Jewish man on the planet who has more Christmas CDs than anything else because starting November 1 each year, Merrie would want to listen to it,” Mike explained in a video for the United Way of Central Georgia. 

After Merrie’s death, her family knew they had to find a way to honor her that brought meaningful joy to others the way that Merrie did. So the Kaplans partnered with the United Way of Central Georgia to launch The Merrie Christmas Project to bring assistance to the neighboring 14-county area to provide gifts, holiday décor, and food to families in need during the Christmas season. Following fundraising efforts, which raised $120,000, the Kaplans would meet and shop with families at nearby Walmart stores. By the end of the 2019 Christmas season, The Merrie Christmas Project had assisted 335 children and 157 adults and provided over 100 Christmas trees with stands and decorations for other families. In November 2019, award-winning country music star, Ronnie Milsap, performed a benefit concert in Macon for the project. 

When the Christmas season came to a close, nearly 600 individuals had been touched by The Merrie Christmas Project—none more so than Nancy and Mike Kaplan. “The Merrie Christmas Project was a salve for the souls of my wife, Nancy, and I after the passing of our daughter. Merrie’s love for everyone, her love of Christmas, and the spirit that surrounds it made this an obvious choice to honor her,” said Mike. “It was unreal that we were able to do so much in such a short period of time. It is a testament to Merrie and people from everywhere that knew her and wanted to help in any way to make this happen.” 

Honoring Merrie’s legacy continued in 2020 as its outreach doubled by providing Christmases for 718 children and 321 adults during one of the more challenging holiday seasons. Scott continued his calls from Santa to help support the goals of the project.

“Nancy and I were both so excited to see how the Merrie Christmas project has affected so many in such a short period of time,” said Mike. “We feel blessed to know that so many of Merrie’s friends have made this possible and we are thankful.”

The family has also expanded the scope of the Merrie Christmas Project by creating “Merrie’s Closet” which will provide a clothes closet resource at special needs schools for students in need. The pilot school is Elam Alexander in Macon. As always, #bemerrie