Bright Spots in Home Schooling

November 21, 2002  

Homeschooler Starts Hamster Rescue

By Christy Somerville

Eight-year-old homeschooler Maggie Chekal is making a difference in her community. The American Humane Association recently named her their Kid of the Year, a title that carried with it a $5,000 scholarship. The award and title were for writing a great essay, or helping a congressman with his campaign for endangered species, right? Wrong. Her award is for rescuing hamsters.

It was almost exactly a year ago that Maggie, a borderline autistic child with developmental delays and speech difficulties, made her first hamster rescue. Her family lives in Perrysburg, a suburb of Toledo, Ohio. Sherri Chekal, "Mom" to Maggie and her twelve-year-old sister Jessy, made the decision to homeschool her daughters three years ago, and hasn't looked back. Mr. and Mrs. Chekal seem pleased with the effect homeschooling has had on the girls, and on Maggie in particular.

Sherri described her daughter as being teased in social settings, and having trouble with the other children. Maggie is a little withdrawn, and does things as she feels, which doesn't always go over well with her peers. Being at home allows her parents to give her the attention she needs, and the protection of a loving atmosphere. In this surrounding, Maggie has made it clear that she may be different, but she's also special.

A year ago, Maggie was only a little seven-year-old girl, ecstatic about her first hamster. She had saved the money and bought a bundle of living fluff that can fit in the palm of your hand. But Maggie wasn't satisfied. She wanted to know all about her new pet. Sherri Chekal turned to the internet for information. While delving through screen after screen of websites, they noticed several pages dealing with abandoned hamsters. Apparently, hamsters were being put to sleep because no one would take responsibility for them.

Maggie wanted to do something about it. Sherri was uncertain, but promised her daughter that she would call their vet. Sure enough, the vet confirmed that it really was a problem. Maggie's next suggestion was that they put up fliers offering a home to abandoned hamsters. Sixty fliers accordingly went out to a number of vet offices. Sherri also called the Toledo Humane Society and left her number.

Not twenty minutes after she hung up with the Humane Society, Sherri was back on the phone. The volunteer had taken down her number and walked it into the offices just as a pair of mistreated teddy bear hamsters were about to be put down. Sherri dropped everything and sped with Maggie to the rescue.

The hamsters, two males, were in bad shape. They had been fighting, and were bloodied and covered with scratches. Their cage was a tiny, stinking, miserable habitat for these two miserable rodents. Maggie, going through an "astronaut phase", promptly named them Nova and Saturn. Saturn did not survive his wounds, but Nova healed and became the first of Maggie's many successes.

Since that day a year ago, Maggie and her family have rescued 170 unwanted bits of fuzzy life. They take not only hamsters, but guinea pigs and rats. The Chekals have been able to find homes for 115 of these, and the remaining ones are kept in 30 glass aquariums that take up half their basement. The girls spend an hour each day caring for their pets, and a longer time each week cleaning out the cages. They love to be down in the basement, cuddling and caressing their pets. Maggie's favorite is a guinea pig named "Little Pig", a brown, black, and white female. She speaks lovingly of all her creatures, and is very knowledgeable on the subject of not feeding too many treats, for fear of making them sick.

Maggie is just a little girl from Ohio, but her love for abandoned creatures stretches far beyond her hometown. Her story has been featured in newspapers, on television, and over the radio since being named Kid of the Year. As an example of how homeschooling can help unleash a child's tremendous potential, Maggie Chekal is definitely a bright spot.


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