A Magical Animal
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.