Fund helps kids win Chincoteague ponies

Alyssa Jastram can’t remember a time she didn’t love the Chincoteague ponies, the small, spirited horses that live in the wild on the coastal islands of Virginia.

She learned to ride on an elderly Chincoteague pony her parents adopted as a rescue. She has read the landmark children’s book “Misty of Chincoteague” repeatedly.

This week, the Ridgely 11-year-old will realize the fantasy of countless horse-loving children around the world: like Maureen and Paul Beebe, the orphans at the center of Marguerite Henry’s 1947 novel, she’ll soon have a young Chincoteague pony all her own.

Alyssa is the latest Marylander to win a nationwide contest sponsored by a Carroll County nonprofit dedicated to helping young people make that particular dream come true every year.

The Feather Fund, based in Westminster, will provide Alyssa and fellow winner Kensington Nelson of Monterey, Calif., with enough cash to place the winning bid on one foal each in the annual Chincoteague Island Pony Auction on Thursday.

The auction is one of the main events of Pony Penning Week, a seven-day celebration of Chincoteague’s pony heritage that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Co., which owns and cares for the wild ponies year-round.

The nonprofit asks applicants between the ages of 10 and 18 to submit an essay explaining “why it is [their] dream to own a Chincoteague pony” — as well as to detail their equine experience, lay out a feasible plan for housing and caring for the animal, and report how much money they’ve saved and how they earned it.

Winners are asked to donate some or all of that money to the Feather Fund to help support the following year’s recipients.

When Alyssa decided to apply, she recalled, she had little sense that she might win, but the six-person Feather Fund board quickly chose her application from among the 50 submitted from across the United States.

Alyssa and her family were camping on Assateague Island (she follows the ponies’ exploits on a local website, and wanted to see them up close) in May when the board members contacted her by conference call.

When she got the news, she broke down.

“I’ve never, ever been this happy,” she said between sobs.

In her essay, she described her bond with Tunee, the elderly Chincoteague pony her parents rescued in 2012, and described how she’d helped another rescue horse recover from the loss of an eye.

Fund director Lois Szymanski said board members were so impressed by the passion, warmth and equine knowledge displayed in the application that they, too, burst into tears.

Szymanski, who lives in Westminster, is a children’s author in her own right — she has published several books on the Chincoteague ponies. (She is also a contributor to the Carroll County Times, which is owned by the Baltimore Sun Media Group.)

In many ways, she said, Alyssa — like the 36 girls and one boy who have preceded her as award recipients — is a model of what the Feather Fund has stood for since it was established in 2004.

Marguerite Henry herself would have been hard-pressed to come up with its founding story.

As a young mother, Szymanski often traveled to Chincoteague with her husband, Dan, and their two daughters, Shannon and Ashley, for the annual pony penning festivities.

Then as now, the celebration includes the Chincoteague Pony Swim, the famed spectacle in which a team of local wranglers, the Saltwater Cowboys, drives the herd of about 200 ponies from their home on Assateague Island across the quarter-mile channel to Chincoteague.

The next day — the Thursday of Pony Penning Week — the 50 or so foals in the group are auctioned at the Chincoteague Fairgrounds.

During the drive down in 1995, Shannon and Ashley, then 14 and 12, announced they had saved $500 from their summer jobs and wanted to buy a pony.

Their parents knew that was only about half what the girls would need. But they decided that competing, falling short, and coming back better prepared next year would make a good lesson.

The sisters bid on every horse but never came close. By pony No. 40, they were in tears.

Then a woman they didn’t know offered to help.

Carolynn Suplee of Herndon, Va., had survived a recent cancer scare, decided it was time to “give something back,” and had come to Chincoteague determined to buy a pony for a child who loved the horses but couldn’t afford one.

During her illness, Suplee had visited the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes at Mount St. Mary’s University in Thurmont.

When she opened a Bible displayed in the garden, her eyes fell on a line in Psalm 91: [The Lord] will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.

She’d been noticing feathers everywhere since then, a recurring sight that gave her comfort. And when she spotted the weeping girls, she noticed Shannon’s shirt was covered with a feather design.

The group reentered the bidding and won the 42nd pony, a brown filly with a feather-shaped mark on its neck.

Shannon, now 36 and married, raised and trained Sea Feather. She has cared for her for 22 years.

Not everyone will agree with Szymanski that the events were divinely inspired, but it’s hard not to notice the positive ripples they’ve spread.

Suplee died in 2003, but not before she and her husband visited Chincoteague eight summers in a row, either donating a pony to a child or buying it back for the herd.

Szymanski and Ed Suplee established the Feather Fund the following year to continue her work.

Both serve on the board, which sponsors fund-raising events each year to support the cause.

The most lucrative is an auction of horse-related arts and crafts held on Chincoteague on the Tuesday of every Pony Penning Week. It can fetch up to $7,000, enough to finance two or three award winners most years.

The nonprofit declines to reveal how much this year’s recipients received. The average cost of a winning pony bid last year was more than $2,700.

Given that it’s possible to buy a foal from a different breed for a fifth of that amount, such assistance is a boon for any girl who grew up dreaming of becoming not just a horsewoman but the next Maureen Beebe.

The Feather Fund covers the cost of purchasing the pony; winners and their families are responsible for the rest.

It’s a long-term commitment that begins immediately: Trailering a pony home can cost thousands of dollars in itself. Boarding, feeding and veterinary care generally run to $6,000 and more per year.

Alyssa’s parents, Berl and Sabrina Jastram, already have built a round pen on the farm for their new charge.

Denise Bowden, an officer with the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, said the winners contribute to a worthy cause — providing a reliably healthy home for a foal from the island’s unique herd — and the experience of training and raising such a horse can help turn them into hard-working, humane and responsible adults.

“We’re absolutely comfortable with where the ponies end up,” Bowden said. “These [winners] aren’t just random kids off the street. They have to be supremely qualified, and they always turn out to be the kind of kids who give it their all.”

Those who have won say the experience changed their lives. There was the girl whose father died of cancer just before the auction. And the only boy who has ever received the largesse saw his pony through strangles, a potentially fatal disease.

He’s about to enter veterinary school, Szymanski said.

She shared stories of the ponies this week with a crowd of school children at a public library in Taneytown, one of the dozen or so such appearances she makes per year.

Syzmanski spoke of Miracle Man, a longtime stallion who was so smart he’d hustle his mares across the water to the safety of the Chincoteague Fairgrounds before the Saltwater Cowboys could get started each year. She told of Surfer Dude, a star stallion who died in 2014, leaving his brood of 18 mares to his son, Riptide.

She recounted the tale of Sea Feather, now 22, and flashed pictures of Shannon’s three children — her grandkids — learning to ride on her.

“Who here would like to go to Chincoteague and buy a foal?” she asked, and dozens of hands shot up.

Outside the library, 2005 pony recipient Summer Barrick showed Starlight Blessing to a stream of admiring kids as part of the presentation.

Raising “Star,” she said, helped transform a painfully shy 10-year-old girl into the confident, sociable professional horse trainer she is today.

“It’s something special when you take an animal that is three months old and grow with it,” said Barrick, gently letting the pony drink from a water bottle.

She’s returning this week to Chincoteague for an annual reunion of past winners, as she and most Feather Fund “alumni” do every year.

Alyssa is looking forward to joining the group.

“I’m like freaking out because I'm so happy,” she said. “I can't wait to meet my new foal and my new Feather Fund family.”

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