The Feather Fund: Helping Kids Achieve Their Pony Dreams
By Gabrielle Sasse, PleasureHorse.com
Black Beauty, National Velvet, Trigger… these famous horses drove kids everywhere to beg their parents for a pony. But it was Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague who brought light to the ponies of Chincoteague and Assateague islands, and the infamous pony swim and auction run by the firefighters of Chincoteague annually. Kids could actually go to Chincoteague and buy their own pony! The Feather Fund is working to help bring a Chincoteague pony to a deserving young kid each year, inspired by the work of Carollynn Suplee.
If you haven’t heard about the pony swim, or your Misty memory is a little, well, misty, here is a brief review from Chincoteague.com: “The purpose of the pony swim is to move the ponies from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island so that the foals can be auctioned. The auction serves two purposes: as a way to control the overall size of the herd, because to retain the grazing permit on the Wildlife Refuge, the herd cannot exceed 150 horses. Secondly, the auction is a fundraiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company.”
The weekend prior to the Pony Swim, “Saltwater Cowboys” on horseback will begin to round up the approximately 150 wild ponies that live on Assateague Island. About 50 ponies reside on the southern end of Assateague Island, and will be herded into a southern corral. About 100 ponies reside a little further north on the Assateague Island, and will be herded into a northern corral.
A few days later, Saltwater Cowboys swim the ponies from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island. The swim takes place at slack tide, the ponies swimming the Assateague Channel, just south of Memorial Park.
Each year the Fire Company designates a few ponies (usually between 3 to 5) as “Buy Backs.” A Buy Back Pony is a foal that is designated by the Fire Company to return to Assateague Island to live out its life there, to help replenish the herd. The Buy Back Pony will be auctioned with the rest of the foals, with the winner naming the Pony before it is returned to Assateague. Buy Back Ponies have actually become some of the highest priced ponies sold at the auction. “
The firemen do a great job taking care of the ponies: they get vet care and hoof care in spring and fall, and they check on the foals in the spring. It is said that they are the “best managed herd of wild horses in America.” Firefighters drop hay in the winter when not enough hay, and there has never been foal drowning in the history of the roundup. The horses will even swim across on their own to steal crops and swim back!
The Feather Fund is a non-profit organization spearheaded by Lois Szymanski, who began it with Ed Suplee through the Ed and I started it with the Community Foundation, and is run by a board of volunteers. Ed and Lois started after the generous work of Carollynn and Ed Suplee. In 1995, Lois, her husband Dan and their two young daughters, traveled to the auction. Their daughter Ashley was singing at the Misty Museum, and the girls had saved $500 in their pockets for a pony, determined to bring one home. Lois and Dan weren’t able to supplement the kids’ pony fund, but they let them bid anyway. Forty ponies went by, and the girls were starting to get discouraged.
Fireman David Savage, whom the Szymanski family had helped early by donating a microphone and amp, brought over an older couple. Carollynn and Ed Suplee had planned to purchase a Buy Back pony, but they were all auctioned off already. The couple insisted on buying the Szymanski girls a pony instead! Lois and Dan protested, until Carrollynn shared her story. “I had cancer, a brain tumor. I didn’t think I would live through surgery. But God sent me a sign that I would be okay. During those weeks before surgery, I started finding feathers. Everywhere I went I found feathers, even in odd places.” She found Psalm 91:
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
And then knew she would be ok. Carrollynn wanted to give back, just as she was given her life back. “When Mr. Savage pointed you out, I looked over and a seagull feather drifted down in front of me. Then I saw your daughter’s shirt, and I knew. I am supposed to do this.” I looked at Shannon’s shirt. It was an Indian design, with feathers on the front.”
The whole crowd got involved, chanting at the Szymanskis to buy the pony. The couple relented, and before they knew it they had purchased, with the help of the Suplees, pony #42, a tiny brown foal with four socks. Ashley named their pony Sea Feather, and to everyone’s surprise the foal had a white spot in the shape of a jagged feather on his neck.
Carrollynn and Ed continued their work for many years after that, buying ponies for children that Carrollynn felt directed to. If they didn’t find a child in need, they would purchase a Buy Back for the herd. Sadly, Carrollynn’s cancer came back in March of 2003. She passed away in October of that year, after purchasing one last pony for Alissa Swenson, a girl who she had met the previous year.
Ed and Lois had convinced Carrollynn to start The Feather Fund, a nonprofit organization to carry on her work. She was pleased with the idea. Lois recants, “My daughter was the very first person Carrollynn gave a pony to. Just incredible… ever since 1995, each year she survived, she would buy a pony. It was pretty amazing, because after Carrollynn passed, she didn’t want to glorify her name with the fund.”
They joined forces with the Community Foundation of Carroll County and in 2004 The Feather Fund gave away their first pony. Their mission is the goal of helping each child learn about responsibility, care, love, work ethic, as well as the concept of “giving back to others” through the care and training of his or her animal. Additionally, the fund may provide financial support to related causes as determined by the advisory committee.
“That first year, we had just gotten our non-profit status and we didn’t have an application procedure. We just asked for direction from above, and wanted to find a kid. Halfway/three quarters through the auction, my daughter (now an adult) came back and said a little girl was sitting watching and bidding, but kept dropping out of the bid. She had feathers in her ponytail. They had driven all the way from Oklahoma, and during the drive, she read [her family] this book called Sea Feather.” Sea Feather is the book written by Lois, describing their wonderful journey of their new pony. “Our whole family was very emotional, and we believed Carrollynn sent us the girl. Since then, we have given over 20 ponies and we know where every one is.”
Lois continues how the Feather Fund has unfolded. “It’s interesting to see how it turns out every year. We usually try to do two ponies, and there are always three or four kids who we want to give to. We try to encourage them to re-apply if they don’t make it, since we can’t get them all. Molly, who won last year, was on her fourth year applying, and her mom was just diagnosed with cancer that year. The ponies seem to come to kids when they need it most. One story after another where these ponies make such a difference… it’s amazing.”
This article will be continued in “Part 2: The Feather Fund.” Watch for it on PleasureHorse.com in the coming days…