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Lois Szymanski watched fondly as 12-year-old Elizabeth Suddreth plastered a brown pony's face with kisses. It was 2006, and the Feather Fund, the nonprofit Szymanski runs, had just helped Elizabeth buy the foal during the annual sale of ponies on Chincoteague, an island off the Virginia coast. (A pony is a small horse; a foal is a young pony or horse.) Each year one to three children between 10 and 18 receive a grant that lets him or her buy a pony, which usually costs several thousand dollars. To obtain the aid, the children fill out applications describing their ability to care for a pony and pay for its future upkeep; they also explain what winning would mean to them. About three dozen apply each year. The nonprofit began in 2004 and since then all winners but two have been girls.
It's about empowerment, Szymanski points out. "Ponies are magical, especially to girls, who seem to absorb the equines' strength."
Seeing Elizabeth's joy took Szymanski back to the moment when her own daughters received the animal that inspired the creation of the group. It was 1995, and she and her husband were leaning on the rail of the auction ring and watching as the first entry of the Chincoteague wild pony roundup was shown to the crowd.
It was the Szymanski family's third trip to the 83-year-old event, made famous by Marguerite Henry's classic novel Misty of Chincoteague, in which two children acquire a foal they name Misty. During the auction, 50 to 100 animals are sold to benefit the local volunteer fire department. Reducing the size of the herd -- stabilized at about 125 because of the sales -- also ensures there's enough grazing on the island for those that remain.
Szymanski worried about her two daughters' excitement when they saw the spirited creatures enter the ring. Ashley, then 10, and Shannon, then 12, had saved $500 to buy a pony. A man helping with the auction warned them that though the price tag for any given animal might start below $1,000, it typically rose to several thousand. Yet the two remained optimistic. "Ashley stood up to yell '$500!' each time a foal came into the ring. The auctioneer would laugh and say, 'Who will bid six?' and someone always did. Eventually both girls were in tears," recalls Szymanski.
By then Ashley's failed bids had attracted the attention of a couple who introduced themselves as Carollynn and Ed Suplee and announced, "We want to help your girls buy a pony!" Surprised and embarrassed, the Szymanskis refused.
"You don't understand," Szymanski recalls the woman responding. "I had a brain tumor. I didn't think I would live. Then God sent me signs in the form of feathers." Actual feathers would appear in strange places or she'd read about them at surprising moments. During a visit to Emmitsburg, Maryland, and its Grotto of Lourdes -- a replica of the French pilgrimage site -- Suplee looked at a Bible there and found it marked at Psalm 91:4. "The text said that the Lord would cover me with feathers and protect me," Szymanski recalls Suplee saying. To Suplee, the message was that despite her cancer, she was safe in His care. She was granted such grace she wanted to give in return and had gone to the pony sale with that in mind. Then she pointed to Shannon's T-shirt with its Native American-style feather design. When Suplee saw it, she said, she knew it was a divine message. "He wants me to buy this pony for you," she insisted.
Szymanski and her husband were at a loss. "Then suddenly I was hugging Carollynn while she and Ed helped my children bid $1,000 on a tiny brown foal," Szymanski says. "Then he turned, and we saw a white feather-shaped patch on his neck!" The pony, dubbed Sea Feather, joined the Szymanski family.
As the years went by Szymanski saw Suplee return annually to the auction to pick a girl to present with a pony. In 2003 Suplee lost her battle with cancer, but Szymanski was determined to keep the dream alive. She and Ed Suplee created the Feather Fund (www.featherfund.org).
Girls who win a pony are transformed, Szymanski says. One mother told her, "My daughter's friends are chasing boys, but the man in her life lives in the barn!" Szymanski says she thinks of Suplee every time she sees a feather on the ground or floating on the breeze: "She is looking down on us and smiling."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2008.