Kids' dreams fulfilled

The Feather Fund Fun Horse Show raises money for a program that gives Chincoteague ponies to children

September 16, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Lois Szymanski vividly recalled the day Carollynn Suplee bought her daughters, Shannon and Ashley, a pony from Chincoteague Island.

The girls had saved $500, but it wasn't nearly enough to buy one of the wild ponies they coveted.

"At first we told her that we couldn't accept the pony," said Szymanski, 50, of Westminster. "But she persisted until we agreed."

That was 1995, and the pony, named Sea Feather, started a tradition that Suplee continued until she died in 2003.

Szymanski wanted to continue the tradition, so in 2004, she helped start the Feather Fund, which helps buy Chincoteague ponies for children.

To raise money for the program, Sea Feather will be featured in the Feather Fund Fun Horse Show Saturday.

In addition to activities that include barrel, flag and egg-on-a-spoon races, special guests are scheduled to attend: Misty Moon Dancer -- the great-great-granddaughter of Misty, the pony made famous in the book Misty of Chincoteague -- and her new foal, Midnight Moon.

"We're so excited to have Misty's descendants at the show," Szymanski said. "Midnight Moon is the first solid black descendant of Misty."

Proceeds from the show will benefit the Feather Fund, overseen by the nonprofit Community Foundation of Carroll County Inc., said Audrey Cimino, the foundation's executive director.

To participate in the program, children from all over the country submit an essay that explains why they want a Chincoteague pony. The child has to have some experience with horses and has to have saved a portion of the money. The ponies cost $900 to $17,500, Cimino said.

"We want children who are trying to get a pony on their own. We're looking for children who have a commitment to getting a pony," she said.

Since the inception of the program, about 10 ponies have been placed.

Szymanski said it all started with a feather and a chance encounter in 1995, when she took her daughters to Chincoteague Island, Va., for the Wild Pony Swim and Roundup. At the annual roundup every July, local firefighters swim ponies from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island.

The girls didn't have enough money to buy a pony, Szymanski said, so Suplee offered to purchase one for them. The Szymanski family refused.

"We didn't accept money from family, and we certainly weren't going to accept money from a stranger," Szymanski said.

But Suplee didn't give up.

Suplee told the Szymanskis she had a brain tumor and had come to the event hoping to buy a pony to donate back to the island, but she arrived late.

Believing she wouldn't live through surgery, Suplee told the family she had started seeing feathers everywhere she went. On a visit to the Grotto of Lourdes in Emmitsburg, Suplee said, she stepped up to the Bible in the garden and it was open to Psalms 91, Verse 4.

"She told us that the verse told her that the Lord would cover her with feathers and protect her," Szymanski recalled. "So when the fireman pointed out my daughter, a seagull feather drifted down in front of Carollynn. She looked over and saw my daughter's shirt. ... It had an Indian design with feathers on it. ... She said she knew she was supposed to buy her a pony."

The Szymanskis thought the pony that they named Sea Feather was solid brown, but when they picked it up, the pony had a shape on it that looked like a feather, she said.

Szymanski later wrote a children's book, Sea Feather, that recounts the experience.

During the next eight years, Suplee continued to purchase ponies for children, Szymanski said. When Suplee died in 2003, Szymanski said, she helped start the foundation.

"Just like Carrollynn, we wanted to help children learn to give back," she said. "And in so many cases, the ponies change the child's lives."

One year, there was a little girl whose parents were going through a divorce, Syzmanski said, and the girl wanted someone she could tell her secrets to. Another youngster was in special classes because she couldn't learn to read, and when she got the pony, Syzmanski said, her reading jumped three grade levels.

In addition to being a companion for the children, the ponies teach respect and responsibility, Szymanski said: "Unlike a dog, with horses, you have to earn their respect. And children also learn hard work ethics."

Once Shannon Szymanski, now 26, of Westminster got Sea Feather home, the two immediately bonded, she said..

"He wanted to be with us all the time," Shannon said. "He is quite different from any other horse. And he is wild, but he is incredibly easy to deal with."

Summer Barrick, 13, of Westminster received a pony she named Starlight, after submitting an essay, said her mother, Robin Pool.

"Summer liked the idea of a Chincoteague pony because they are wild," said Pool, 43. "She had no idea her dream to own a Chincoteague pony would come true."

The ponies have nice personalities, even though they're wild, she said. Summer spent the night in the barn with Starlight when she brought him home.

"Sometimes ponies take time to warm up to people," Pool said. "But these ponies warm right up. It's amazing that they are so gentle. They follow you around like a puppy dog. Summer taught her pony to bow and shake hands. They are just remarkable animals."

The Feather Fund Annual Fun Show will be held beginning at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the High Ridge Farm, 2966 Manchester Baptist Road, Manchester. Admission is free to public. There is a $35 fee per horse and rider. Information: 410-346-7321.

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