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'Tornado Mom' Stephanie Decker to Okla. victims: 'You will rebuild and get through this'

May 22, 2013 at 4:16 AM ET

Survivors of Monday’s devastating tornado in Oklahoma are coming to grips with their post-storm realities, and there’s one person who knows all too well what they are feeling. Stephanie Decker understands the emotions of fear, shock and loss after the disaster -- and also the gratitude for what remains and the hope for what’s to come.

Decker, a 38-year-old mom of two from Henryville, Ind., survived an EF-4 tornado in March 2012. She made news when she shielded her two kids by lying on top of them in the basement of their three-story brick and stone home, which the storm demolished around her. While Decker’s kids were unharmed, she lost both of her legs and has spent the past year learning to use prosthetics.

“There's not anything I can’t do. It’s my new normal,” said Decker, who has relearned how to walk, run and swim and is thankful she can be active with her kids. “I drive a regular car, go to the grocery store, work out. With prosthetics, the hard thing is to be patient. Not everything comes all at once.”

For Decker, in addition to her physical recovery, the year has involved plenty of other rebuilding, from her kids’ confidence and security, to the family home, to a new career. Her journey back is one that she hopes will resonate with many of the survivors in Moore, Oklahoma.

Stephanie Decker, shown when she first learned to walk using prosthetic legs.
TODAY
Stephanie Decker, shown when she first learned to walk using prosthetic legs.

Monday’s tornado stirred up memories for Decker, and she was especially devastated to hear of the elementary school kids who lost their lives. “I’m heartbroken for their parents’ pain and sorrow,” she said. When severe weather was expected in her town last year, she quickly went to retrieve her children from school.

“I left work, picked the kids up and took them to basement. It was the safest thing to do. We did what we were supposed to do,” she said, adding their town was fortunate that the tornado didn’t hit the school.

Decker calls the Oklahoma teachers who sacrificed their lives to protect students “true heroes.” While acknowledging she did the same thing for her kids, she says it’s not the same. “Most parents would lay their life on the line for their own kids. To do it for other people’s kids, that is true bravery,” said Decker, whose husband Joe is a high school teacher.

For her kids, Dominic, 10, and Reese, 7, Decker says the year has been “baby-steps,” a gradual return to normal. She points to a few things that helped her kids cope with post-traumatic stress. For starters, they went into therapy immediately, while Decker was still in the hospital recovering from her injuries. “Getting help early is key. [The doctors] can handle the situation. I didn’t want their fears to lead to other fears,” she said.

For months after the fact, her kids were fearful to sleep on their own and when Decker got home from the hospital, they slept in bed with her. Eventually, she moved them to a mattress next to her bed, and then to a room nearby, where they could still see her. It took months before they would sleep in their own bedrooms, she said. “Be patient,” she advised the parents of Oklahoma tornado victims. “Sometimes you will take a few steps forward and then a few steps back. Every child has their own pace. Knowing your child and how they react to certain things is important."

She remains in awe of the resilience of her kids, and how, these days, they don’t even think about the tornado that changed their lives.

The kids do ask when they hear about bad weather coming, but Decker and her husband never hide the truth. Decker said, “I tell them, ‘I will tell you if a tornado is coming.’” The Deckers have a rule that the kids are allowed to check the weather radar only once. “We don’t want them obsessing over it. We explained what all the colors on the map mean, and they get one chance to look.” After that, it’s up to mom and dad to inform them if they need to worry any more, Decker says.

The family also has an emergency safety plan in place, which they talk about with their kids frequently. And it’s no surprise that they are also stocked with supplies, including weather radios, flashlights, first aid kits, helmets to protect from falling debris, and an emergency generator for power. There are also shoes, Decker says. When the tornado hit and she was injured, she sent son Dominic to the neighbor’s house for help. He was barefoot, and she was worried about him stepping on debris. “I told him to find some mismatched flip flops and that’s what he wore to the neighbors.” Next time, she says, the Deckers will all have shoes to wear.

While they are still in the process of building their new house in the neighboring town of Sellersburg, Ind., the Deckers have gone the extra step and built a safe room. “It’s a bunker -- we could stay in it for a week,” Decker said, adding that it is the size of a “large laundry room.” It has concrete ceilings and walls, and even pull-down bunk beds. “We made sure it was adequately equipped for any kind of weather that would come through.”

In reflecting on her year, Decker says one of the most uplifting parts has been in finding a new career of motivational speaking and creating the Stephanie Decker Foundation, which helps kids with prosthetics get involved with sports and also advocates for ordinary people to get fitted with high-tech prosthetics, just as Decker was fortunate to have.

Decker admits she is “hard-wired” to be positive and find the best in every situation. “I’m setting an example for my kids,” she said. “I want them to understand everyone struggles and everyone has a story. It’s how you deal with your story is what makes the difference in your life.”

She added that for her and her whole community that was devastated by the tornado, there is something larger that keeps her going. “It’s humbling to see the overwhelming support we’ve had, to see humanity and compassion from friends, families and strangers, who travel miles to help you.”

To the tornado victims in Moore, Okla., she said: “The amount of support and giving you will see … that is what will help. You will rebuild and get through this."

Related:

Full coverage of the Oklahoma tornado tragedy on NBCNews.com

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