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Friends Rally Around Real-life Santa

Don Chapman's illness threaten to curb his good works

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Don Chapman is one of those guys most of us wish we could be more like, if only we had the energy, the dedication and a more giving spirit. He's a big, burly guy with a long, white beard who, despite his brawny appearance, is known as a talented craftsman with a kind and gentle soul. Chapman used his artistic skills and sense of philanthropy to start One Special Christmas in 1989, which has raised more than $500,000 to help thousands of disadvantaged children in the Carolinas and Virginia.

This past November, Chapman, 53, was diagnosed with leukemia, and is currently at a hospital in Richmond, VA undergoing chemotherapy. As soon as Chapman is strong enough, he plans to travel to a Veterans Administration hospital in Seattle where doctors are confident he'll be able to find a match for a bone-marrow transplant.

"We're taking it day by day," says his wife, Bonnie. "This isn't an easy process, but Don's attitude is great, so we're hanging in there."

Because Don is a Vietnam vet, most of his medical bills are paid for. However, he has no health insurance, and he and his wife have no money coming in to maintain living expenses. It's estimated Don could be out of work for 10 months or more because of the medical procedures and recovery time needed. Many friends of Don's are hoping the Charlotte community can give back to a man who has helped so many others.

In the early 70s, Don was a student at the Memphis College of Art. Like most college students, he was broke, in fact too broke to make it home to Mooresville for Christmas. Looking around campus for something to do, he asked the president of the college if he could use the school's woodshop to build some toys for the kids at a nearby orphanage. Some of the other students stranded on campus decided to help out, and that Christmas the kids at the orphanage got an unexpected bundle of handcrafted wooden toys.

When Don began teaching art classes and woodshop at CPCC a few years later, he continued making toys for needy kids. It didn't take long for Don's infectious enthusiasm to convince a growing number of students and fellow woodworkers to join him.

In 1984 Don and Bonnie married and soon started Chapman Log Homes and Building School, specializing in custom log homes. But Don, with the help of his friends, continued making toys and playing Santa. Eventually, the group decided that instead of making just toys, they could have a bigger impact by building furniture, special craft items, and even log cabins. These would then be auctioned off, and the funds used to buy toys for needy kids all across the Piedmont area. In 1989, the first One Special Christmas auction was held, and about $7,000 was collected.

"Don had a vision, and just by the force of his personal will and commitment, he made it happen," said Steve Snow, a long-time friend of Don's. "There's really no organization, every year it just happens. People start calling and lending their support, and before you know it everything falls into place."

In the 13 years since that fist auction, One Special Christmas has raised an average of nearly $50,000 each year, all of which was spent on buying toys for needy kids. Over the years, hundreds of woodworkers, blacksmiths and artists have donated their time and talent for the cause. Snow says what makes One Special Christmas all the more unique is that these volunteers also work closely with social services, foster care and churches to identify the kids in need, and find out exactly what they want.

"Each present is individually bought, wrapped and delivered to the child who asked for it," Snow said. "If a kid asks for a Schwinn bike, they get a Schwinn bike. The idea is to make it as special and personal for the child as it can be. Something that they can look back on in 20 years and say, 'Wow, that was a really great Christmas.'"

Don moved from Mooresville to Fancy Gap, VA in 1996, but he continued to come to Charlotte every fall to lead his holiday project. This past Christmas season, he was told he had leukemia two days before the November auction. Although doctors warned him that traveling could be dangerous, Don insisted and was there at St. Gabriel Catholic Church to oversee the proceedings.

Despite having to contend with the side effects of chemotherapy and a host of antibiotics, Don's sense of humor is still firmly intact, and he remains upbeat. Speaking from his hospital bed in Virginia, he says he's looking forward to getting better and returning to work.

As usual, though, his thoughts are more focused on others. Don says that over the past several months he's made a disturbing discovery concerning minorities and the availability of donor blood. As an active voice in the community, he hopes to shed some light on the subject and bring about some positive change. "There's a real lack of minority donors," Chapman said. "If a minority has what I've got, they don't stand much of a chance making it unless they have a brother or sister with a perfect (blood-type) match. I've always told kids that if you get the chance to give back to somebody, do it. And honestly, I can't think of a better gift."

If you would like to help or learn more about Don Chapman, go to www.commcure.com/don.

Contact Sam Boykin at(704)944-3623 or sam.boykin@cln.com.

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