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Generosity of others at pony penning gives hope for the future

Ponies rest under a shade tent in the pens at the 2016 Pony Penning on Chincoteague Island in Virginia.
Ponies rest under a shade tent in the pens at the 2016 Pony Penning on Chincoteague Island in Virginia. (Lois Szymanski / Submitted photo)

My family and I are just back from a week of work and fun on Chincoteague Island in Virginia. What started out as a book research trip 31 years ago turned into what I call a pony obsession, but my husband sometimes laughingly calls a sickness. I've learned that our obsessions can add a new dimension to life, and for us that is a good thing.

Pony Penning Week used to mean leisurely days following the saltwater cowboys as they rounded up wild ponies. We'd watch the pony parade coming down the beach as the sun rose on Monday — Beach Walk Day. Then it was on to visit the ponies in the pens, watch the Wednesday pony swim and the Thursday pony auction and then the swim back home on Friday. But things have changed since we started The Feather Fund, the charity that helps deserving children purchase pony foals each year at auction.

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When cancer survivor Carollynn Suplee helped my daughter purchase her wild pony foal in 1995, we did not know how that gift would change our lives. Sea Feather helped my daughter grow into a strong, hardworking, reliable young woman. Training him gave her confidence and helped erase the part of her that was shy and frightened. And each year we were inspired again when Carollynn purchased a foal for yet another child, or one to turn back on the island to live out its days. Carollynn said she had to give back for the gift of another year of life. When she passed we joined with family and friends to start the Feather Fund, purchasing pony foals for children annually since 2004. This year Cwen Cole from Connecticutt and Laura Bagley from New York took home their own beautiful foals.

Chincoteague Pony foals are not cheap, so starting this charity meant raising money. Our main fundraiser is a live auction held annually on the Tuesday night of pony penning in the waterfront park on the island. It started as an auction of pony models painted to look like favorite herd members. Those who loved the stallion Surfer Dude would bid their last dime to take home a statue of him or one of the other island favorites. Over time, other items were donated, items like framed photos of favorite ponies, original paintings and quilts and throws with favorite ponies racing across the threads.

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Pony Penning Week for us has morphed into one that focuses on the charity. We arrive early to set up for the fundraiser and stay late to tear down. We spend much of the week of meeting with pony award winners to help them pick favorite foals and answer questions about size and breeding background. On Thursday we sit with them at the auction and we celebrate when they bid on their foals. I always feel like Carollynn is sitting beside us at the auction, making sure they get the right foal, because they always do. Later that evening, we hold a picnic for all returning Feather Fund families. This year, 19 recipients came back for pony penning. With their families the reunion picnic accommodated more than 65 people.

The Feather Fund is like a big family. Past recipients step forward each year to support the new girls and each other, but we also see support all around us. We set a limit of $2,500 for the girls, knowing that we will go as high as $3,000 if necessary. This year, when the bidding went over $3,000 on Cwen's favorite foal the large group sitting next to us took notice. They were the Chincoteague Legacy Group (CLG), formed to purchase buyback ponies annually. Buyback bidders who win the bid get to name their foal but do not take it home. It is returned to the island, owned by the Chincoteague Fire Company.

As the bidding rose I heard a shout. "$1000 from us!" It was Joyce Glorioso with CLG. I must have looked astonished. Joyce, an administrator with CLG repeated her words. "We will give you $1,000 to help her take that foal home." And so young Cwen Cole from Connecticut was able to purchase a beautiful black and white colt, her favorite.

We were already reeling from the generosity of the CLG group when I received a message on my phone. "Do you have any other Feather Fund applicants here who we can help with a foal?" I read Joyce's message out loud and my daughter, Shannon, a Feather Fund board member, immediately said, "Hanna Ceppaluni applied. She's six rows behind Joyce."

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Within minutes, Joyce had brought Hanna to the front row of chairs and I was passing a feather over for her to bid with, our way of letting others know that a Feather Fund child is about to see their dream come true.

Sometimes I miss the leisurely pony penning weeks we once had on Chincoteague but the reward of seeing children take home foals that will change their lives is worth every minute given up. Knowing that they will be slugging to the barn through hot and cold weather, shoveling manure and paths through the snow to feed, groom and love their ponies is knowing that they are learning about the importance of hard work, kindness and giving of ourselves for that which we love.

Throughout the week I also watched my husband, Dan, kayak with all three of our grandchildren. We crabbed until we had two dozen large crabs. It was awesome to watch the kids eat the crabs they had caught. Dan and our oldest grandson rode bikes into town to have ice cream and we spent family time together, good time. Soon we were ready to return to the real world again, carrying with us lessons learned.

Seeing the generosity of others at pony penning gives me such hope for the future. Throughout the week we always encounter a few negative souls. Sometimes they drag us down into their world for a short time, but the wall of good people remind us to shake it off. It is not about the bad news we frequently see. It is about the good that unfolds around us daily from a multitude of kindhearted people. When negative humans form a chain around us we have to remind ourselves of the good. We have to break those chains and stick to what we know is right and good, because that light is the one that will lead our children into a brighter future.

Lois Szymanski is a Carroll County resident and can be reached at loisszymanski@hotmail.com.

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