WEIRTON - Like most Americans, Weirton resident Ric Cooper wanted to do something to help the families of the victims of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings.
So Cooper and assorted family members spent the past month crafting birdhouses, one in memory of each of the 26 children and adults killed when a lone gunman opened fire inside an elementary school on Dec. 14.
"I wanted to do something," he said. "I'd built some before and I just decided it was something I could do for them, something to bring them a little bit of comfort."
Weirton resident Ric Cooper says he couldn’t have crafted these birdhouses, one for each of the 26 people killed when a gunman opened fire in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school on Dec. 14, without the help of his family. Among the family members who helped were, from left, Cooper’s sister, Cindi Scott of Hanover Township, Beaver County, Pa.; Cooper; Chris Krishak; Cooper’s son, Mark, and grandson, Sparky. -- Linda Harris
The birdhouses are painted green and white, the school colors. A brass nameplate attached to each is engraved with either the name and age of a child who was killed or the name and occupation of one of the adults whose life was taken. The name of a family member who helped with the projects is painted on the inside of a small trap door he cut in the bottom of each birdhouse so debris can be removed periodically.
Cooper attached a tiny gold "Guardian Angel" to the front of each birdhouse.
"It's my understanding that they're tearing the school down and are going to build a new school somewhere in the area," Cooper said. "They're tearing down the old school and building a memorial park. If they want to use them in the park, that's great - that's why I made them all green and white. But if someone wants to take theirs home and put it in their own backyard, maybe paint them some other color, they can do that, too."
Cooper said he just wanted the survivors to know "people are thinking of them."
"Nobody knows for sure (how they'll react to tragedy) unless you've lost someone," said Cooper, whose daughter, Crystal, died in 1997 after an eight-year battle with cancer.
He said five area businesses helped him with materials for the project: Marsh Pipe & Supply, paint; Sherwin Williams, brushes and masking tape; Granada Trophies, nameplates; His Place Christian Bookstore in Wellsburg, the Guardian Angels; and Pat Catan's in nearby Aliquippa, Pa., the kits.
Some 26 local families also donated funds to the cause.
"We raised the money for them in four hours," said Chris Krishak, a municipal employee, adding townspeople were quick to dig into their pockets once they knew what the money was going to be used for, as were the five businesses.
Cooper said about three hours of work went into building and finishing each birdhouse. He said it took them about three weeks, "working on them in the evenings after we finished work."
"You always wonder what you can do to help," Cooper's son, Mark, said. "He came up with this idea and asked if we would help. It seemed like a great idea to give back a little bit."
Before ordering the materials Cooper said he researched birdlife in that part of Connecticut.
"I did a lot of research online (to make sure) they'd be usable in that area," he said. "In that area they have speckled wrens and tri-colored wrens, little birds (that) require a 1-inch hole. If the hole was any bigger, the wrens wouldn't use it because bigger birds can get their heads in."
Cooper said he's been tinkering with woodworking for the last 10 or 11 years and enjoys making birdhouses.
"I've made quite a few other ones," he said. "I've got three I'm getting ready to paint right now."
When those three are done, Cooper said they'll be erected in a local park in memory of his father and daughter, as well as the granddaughter of a friend.
"As people want them, I'm doing them," he said.
City officials will be taking them to Newtown, along with other items collected at a community vigil in Weirton.
(Harris can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)