Happy November! And an Essay.

Happy November Everyone!

For the month of October, five (5) chinchillas were surrendered and six (6) chinchillas were adopted.
The year has absolutely zoomed by and the beginning of the month, and our anniversary, passed once again without fanfare.

Chinchillas have literally become my life and I can't imagine not continuing with Whimsy's. And since it's the day after Thanksgiving, it's only appropriate that I thank you everyone for the excellent, encouraging words and continued support with your orders. Thank you so much all for spreading the word about our rescue and store and thank you personal watchdogs on the forums who have confronted those who have tried to copy our designs! Thank you to those of you who round up your invoice total and thank you to those who have the special blessing to submit donations above and beyond. (You know who you are). Thank you to the countless wonderful families and individuals who have sought to provide a home for one of our rescues. With all these blessings it's much easier to deal with last year's loss of our dream. We very nearly won a 35 acre farm. Whimsy's essay was chosen as a finalist among thousands, but the essay contest was canceled right along the home stretch. It was a crushing piece of news to know we were so close. Now, as promised last month,  here is the essay we submitted.

My life operates as a series of ironies and clichés. I was born with an intense love for animals, but am allergic to them. I also have allergy-induced asthma that reacts to animal dander, dust and pollen. Yet I operate a home-based small animal rescue and work diligently to make my organic garden into something resembling a Thomas Kinkade painting.

As a child I would never leave home without my rescue inhaler and wad of tissues. My constant presence at the neighborhood horse stables earned me the friendship of the owner's daughter. There she gave me literal crash courses in horseback riding and fence mending. By the time I was 14 years old, I bought my first horse with money I earned delivering newspapers. Sir Ashleigh, Tenderfoot of Hamburg, didn't mind my constantly runny nose. Often we would sneeze and blow in tandem.

Ever a statistical outlier, when I was 19 years old I went looking for a new home with greener pastures. I left one coast for another with my horse and pet chinchilla when we moved from California to Virginia. Here I also found a nursing degree and a husband. We started our family immediately and my career as stay-at-home mom began. Sadly, my children never met my horse. Like a foreshadowing of marital events, Sir Ashleigh passed away unexpectedly when I was pregnant with our first child. It was an accident, but one that never lost its sting.

Persisting in the "despite all odds" saga, in 2003, I became a single mother of four small children. When the judge questioned my ability to survive, my divorce lawyer explained that I was a woman who could make five meals out of one chicken. "Just do it" was my mantra to go back to college while continuing my commitment to homeschool the little ones. I managed to graduate Magna Cum Laude and earned multiple degrees in Speech/Language Pathology, Special Education and Psychology. My two oldest daughters followed closely in my academic footsteps when they enrolled precociously in college at ages 13 and 14, and continue to maintain perfect 4.0 grade point averages. My youngest daughter also began college at age 13 and earns straight A's just like her sisters. I like to believe my family would fit in well in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon stories: "Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average."

A country girl at heart, for years I would dream aloud with the kids about one day having our own farm with horses again. We talked of cultivating orchards and growing our own hay, of having some quirky fainting goats, a guard donkey, perhaps a llama or two, and of course a peacock. As proud supporters of the backyard hens movement, we collectively lament that the Virginia Beach city council refuses to permit its residents a few chickens. So while the city ordinances don't allow for farm animals in our neighborhood, we had to be content with dogs, cats, birds, fish, a flying squirrel, a hedgehog, ferrets and 100 chinchillas.

The chinchilla "thing" began as a homeschool project. We had the time, experience, space and heart to fill an unusual but overlooked need. We began our operation as a chinchilla specific rescue in November of 2008 and have grown to be one of the largest and most successful of our kind. During this time a few local and national magazines have written articles that spotlighted our shelter. The positive regard has been both rewarding and humbling.

The chinchillas reside in our converted garage that opens directly into our kitchen. To make more room for triple stacked cages we gave up the adjoining laundry room three years ago. To make even more space, we also traded our giant water heater for a tankless external unit. On occasion we have to hold temporary cages in the dining room. But that is reserved for short term boarders or emergency transfers from other shelter facilities.
I have since learned that other people's unwanted pets pose a never-ending influx. My greatest task now is to keep the ratio of surrenders to adoptions relatively equal and the cages out of the primary living area. We are operating at full capacity and have a waiting list for incoming animals as I struggle to reclaim enough space to have a washer and dryer again. It's a constant battle to keep their bath dust and pine shavings out of our home. What was once plenty of room has become crowded, and the chinchilla "thing" has become a full-time job.

To support the career that chose me, and by popular demand, we began making cage accessories and chew toys from select fruit and nut woods. An aspiring Master Gardener, I provide tree pruning as a free service. In return we get to keep the branches to cut, process and fashion into chinchilla chew toys. Together with help from the special needs students at a local high school, we assemble our original pet chews.
Volunteering with the students is undeniably a win-win situation. We began this mutually beneficial relationship during a required practicum for one of my Special Education courses in college. When the teacher lamented that she didn't have enough community jobs for her students to fulfill their work experience requirements, I told her about how handling all the different shapes and textures and following the patterns of our chew toy designs helps my son, who also has special needs. We've been volunteering with the students now for about as many years as we've been operating the rescue, and plan to keep our bimonthly visits indefinitely. We've seen many of the students who age out of the school system and are left with very limited opportunities to be contributing members of society. A dream I have fostered is to ultimately open an adult home and working farm for individuals with cognitive disabilities. The number of students and chinchillas we serve has steadily risen over the years and sometimes, especially during the hottest and coldest months of the year, it's a challenge to cut and process enough materials to keep the students and critters busy.

Out of necessity, I've become a successful craftsperson and have acquired an impressive array of tools. Not only do we make chew toys, we also create signature designed cage accessories. Environmental enrichment is something I strongly advocate when it comes to keeping a healthy and happy pet. We built a tidy little backyard workshop that is jam-packed with wheeled bins of parts and pieces that we bring with us when we have student work days. It also holds boxes of cut lumber ready to assemble into ledges, hidey houses, and chinchilla-sized bridges and swings. Large, pre-decorated cages that we offer for sale with chinchilla adoptions fill the center of the shop. I have to shift everything around like a game of Tetris to get to my supplies. Admittedly, my workshop is now too cramped for more than operating the tabletop drill press or router. I do most of the big cutting and especially dusty work outside, weather permitting.

As our little homeschool endeavor has grown, so has the demand on our modest space. The chinchillas have two rooms devoted to their cages, and the dining area is the showroom for the products we offer in our online store. My master bedroom and the majority of the upstairs and reclaimed attic are storage for boxes, packing supplies, hay, dried herbs and whole loofah in bulk, emergency travel carriers, a few hundred pounds of pumice stones and processed wood, and other raw materials. Like wearing "skinny pants" after a big meal, or home is nearly bursting at the seams and uncomfortably full.

Man plans, God laughs. My "5 year plan" included paying off the house and saving for a larger home with elbow room and land enough to have horses again. Last summer as I scrolled through the local Craigslist for garden supplies, I found my dream horse. Things just fell into place and by the end of the week I had my heart's desire. I managed to find a pasture board facility a half hour's drive away and three months later we added our second gaited mare. Sharing two horses among a family of five has been an interesting challenge, so this summer I found the perfect little confidence building Paso Fino gelding. He and my youngest daughter bonded immediately. Horses are a lot like potato chips (it's hard to have just one or two), and we are undoubtedly making up for lost equine time. It does concern me that the collective boarding fee for our growing herd is nearly as much as a mortgage payment-- minus the equity. We visit the horses daily as I insist on a self-care arrangement. But the daily drive to the stables itself is a time-stealing, joy-sucking demon of necessity.

For my son with autism, riding and grooming the horses is therapeutic. My oldest daughter is a natural born equestrian. She and our green broke Rocky Mountain mare are learning together and are quite a remarkable team. My second daughter is too timid to ride my very forward moving Spotted Saddle horse. She has expressed that a mini would be just her size and speed. My youngest daughter has pseudoseizures and also feels safer closer to the ground. Horse-drawn carriages are something we considered, but never thought the opportunity could be a viable one here in the suburbs.

I hope that this essay has proven and shown that I am a good steward of all that is entrusted to my care. I am debt-free and have excellent credit, but ironically, am unable to get approval for a loan of the necessary amount to meet our growing needs. I have always maximized the use of what I have, and dream within the realm of possibilities. Rock Spring Farm would afford an almost limitless canvas to paint those dreams into reality; whether it would be for a chinchilla shelter, group home, orphaned foal rescue, horse motel, day camp for children with special needs, or a respite for those in mental anguish. I have confidence that our history demonstrates we are capable, responsible, high-energy and ultimately portable as we are eager and ready to expand. Even so, if my children and I were fortunate enough to win the farm, my biggest hope would be that people say it couldn't have happened to a nicer family.