By Leah R. Harrison

The moment you meet Sally Kaplan, you know you are in the presence of someone special.

She looks you in the eye and tries to place how she might know you or your family. She is petite and unassuming, warm and engaging, interested and infectiously positive. Above all, she lives with gratitude and with the driving imperative to do all she can to help others — specifically, to eradicate hunger in Atlanta.

Hanging out in the Hunger Walk Champion’s Tent on Sunday, March 13, are (standing) Sally Kaplan and daughter Bebe Kaplan and (sitting) grandson Jonathan Kaplan, who flies in from Texas for the walk each year, granddaughter Rachel Kaplan, in from Athens, and Lisa and Philip Kaplan.

Hanging out in the Hunger Walk Champion’s Tent on Sunday, March 13, are (standing) Sally Kaplan and daughter Bebe Kaplan and (sitting) grandson Jonathan Kaplan, who flies in from Texas for the walk each year, granddaughter Rachel Kaplan, in from Athens, and Lisa and Philip Kaplan.

Her dedication to that goal has driven Kaplan to become the largest single fundraiser for the Atlanta Community Food Bank’s annual 5K Hunger Walk/Run. Amy Hudson, the food bank’s senior communications manager, said Kaplan has raised more than $360,000 over her years of involvement, and a final push for donations to reach her $27,000 annual goal was expected to bring her total to $370,000 by walk day March 13.

That means her personal fundraising total is more than one-third of the $1 million the Jewish community has raised for the Hunger Walk since record keeping began in 1996.

“Make no mistake, she takes no prisoners,” said Bill Bolling, the food bank’s founder and its executive director since 1979. “But people are delighted to support her. You know, I think it gives people great joy.”

The Kaplan and Bolling families usually walk together at the Hunger Walk. Bolling said, “I’ll tell you what: You’d better be in shape to keep up with her on the walk.”

Kaplan’s involvement with the Hunger Walk began because of the activism of her mother, Helen Cavalier, when the walk moved from Saturday to Sunday in 1985 to encourage Jewish participation.

Ahavath Achim Synagogue was the first Jewish institution to get on board, said Bill Bolling, the founder of the food bank and its executive director since 1979. “Sally’s mom was one of the first people.”

Bolling added: “Sally represents the heart and soul of what the Hunger Walk is for me, and it actually began with her mother, and she’s very quick to say she’s doing this in her mother’s name, for her mother. It’s a great legacy in the family.”

Cavalier’s first years with the walk were supported by the AA morning minyan men, whom she fed danish and coffee daily. Her legacy has reached Bebe Kaplan, Sally’s daughter and a co-chair of this year’s Hunger Walk committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

When her mother died in 1996, Sally Kaplan picked up Cavalier’s Rolodex and the Hunger Walk torch. She said her mother wanted to rid the community of hunger, so that became her responsibility. “She sat on my shoulder and told me what to do and how to do it.”

Members of AA and other associates know it’s futile to resist or avoid Kaplan on the Hunger Walk. She will track you down.

Sally Kaplan receives a gift of appreciation from food bank head Bill Bolling.

Sally Kaplan receives a gift of appreciation from food bank head Bill Bolling.

Michael DeCoursey, the Hunger Walk project manager, said Kaplan does it “old school.” With label and spreadsheet assistance from her daughter, Kaplan sends out 350 to 400 notes in mid-December (allowing response time for year-end donations to gain tax deductions), asks for support and reminds people of their gifts from the previous year. A stamped, self-addressed envelope is included.

From January through the walk in March, Kaplan follows up and makes personal phone calls. She has been encouraged to use email but said the personal touch motivates people to contribute.

She reminds people when she sees them at synagogue or at a movie. She even acknowledged once turning to someone at a funeral and saying, “Did you get my note? I haven’t heard from you.”

You can donate to her team through the end of March at hungerwalkrun.org. Click on “Donate,” then enter “Sally’s Friends.”

Through lots of little gifts of $10, $18 and $25, with some rising into the hundreds of dollars, Kaplan reaches her goals. She calls herself “a little fundraiser” who relies on time-tested techniques, passion and determination.

DeCoursey called Kaplan inspiring and a hero because “she’s not afraid to advocate and champion for the cause to anyone/everyone she meets.”

Kaplan is gratified that Bebe and the rest of the family are involved in the fight against hunger. Her niece drives in from Athens and her nephew flies in from Texas for the walk.

“Nothing is more beautiful than three generations gathering to honor her legacy,” Bebe said. “Children are not born with this knowledge. The powerful Jewish obligations must be taught at the level of individual families with love and inspiration. Without a doubt my grandmother and mother have been role models, not only for our family, but for the entire Jewish community.”