It started on a whim.
Scott and Trish Snyder were both unemployed, without much to do. A friend of the Mantua, Ohio, couple was expecting a baby, and the Snyders, who love to carve and paint, thought, “Why not make her a rocking horse?”
Then, a year later, in 2011, they learned about a local Apache helicopter pilot who had been killed in Afghanistan. Christopher Thibodeau, 28, had just learned that he was going to become a father one week before.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘We have to do something for his child,’ ” Scott Snyder recalls. “So we built him a horse.”
And that was the beginning of Hero’s Rock, a non-profit that creates customized rocking horses for children of fallen soldiers.
The Snyders, who recently returned from a two-month road trip to donate 18 hand-carved ponies to Fisher Houses — comfort lodging for families of wounded veterans needing hospital care — have given away nearly a dozen horses to the families of soldiers killed in action, with plans to craft dozens more. Families who receive the rockers are nominated by friends and relatives.
From start to finish, with help from local volunteers, each horse takes almost three months to complete, customized with a soldier’s favorite colors, hobbies or personal mementos.
Using oak or ash wood, “Scott does the carving and I’m in charge of the painting,” Trish, 54, who used to work as a phlebotomist for the Red Cross and has two grown sons, tells PEOPLE. “We feel a lot of pressure to get them right and exemplify what these soldiers stood for. It’s very emotional – all of these people are our sons’ ages. By the time we’re finished, we feel like we’re part of their family.”
Adds Scott: “They’re not just the kids who live in the next town or down the road. They’re our kids. They’re our country’s kids. Their families deserve something to remember them by that will always bring smiles and joy.”
With each rocking horse costing more than $1,000 to craft, the Snyders rely on donations through their gofundme site to help defray costs. Throughout the process, they consult with family members of the fallen soldiers to ensure that their loved ones’ personalities are captured in the carvings.
“Although we’ve carved a lot of horses, we’ve also made rocking helicopters, dragons, tigers and turtles,” Scott, 54, and a retired body shop worker who used to repair semi trucks, tells PEOPLE. “I love knowing that we’re creating something to help children take their minds off the sadness.”
In memory of Jordan Byrd, an Army medic killed in Afghanistan in 2010, four days after his son, Ayden, was born, the Snyders crafted a rocking Humvee decorated with replicas of bird tattoos he and his wife, Savanna, had on their arms.
“We deliver each rocker to the families personally, and that’s always rewarding,” says Scott. “We know that our rockers will be a portrait of a hero from a child’s point of view. That always brings a few tears.”
Because Christopher Thibodeau had planned to make a helicopter rocker for his son following his tour in Afghanistan, the Snyders decided to turn that dream into a reality for the young pilot’s survivors.
“I wondered if it might cause the family pain to remember that, but being a pilot is what Chris lived for,” Trish tells PEOPLE. “So we made a helicopter in his honor. More than anything, you want to do these guys proud.”
In Christopher’s case, that was a mission accomplished, says his mother, Doreen Thibodeau, who works in the student affairs office at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
When Christopher was killed in action two weeks before he was scheduled to return home, “we were devastated — losing a child is impossible to comprehend,” Doreen tells PEOPLE.
“Just prior to deploying, he’d married the love of life, Leesandra, and nine months into his deployment, he learned he was to become a first-time dad,” she says. “How could we ever explain to our grandchild why his daddy was not here to share in his life?”
The Thibodeaus were surprised and delighted to hear from “a couple of crazy hippies, hoping to make a difference,” says Doreen, who is now close friends with the Snyders, along with her husband, Bob.
In February 2012, when Scott and Trish delivered a helicopter rocker to their grandson, Liam, then 6 weeks old, “there were a lot of smiles, laughter and tears shed,” recalls Doreen. “Each and every day, when Liam wakes up and sees that rocker in his room, he knows there are people who care he would grow up without his daddy because his daddy loved his country.”
“Thoughts like that are what keep us going,” adds Scott. “We feel we’ve found a purpose, a way of saying, ‘Thank you.’ Every time, a child climbs onto one of one of our rockers, we know there will be smiles. That tugs at our hearts.”
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