After saving up enough money to fulfill her dream of attending cosmetology school, then 20-year-old Steph Aiello was involved in a tragic car accident the day before her first class.
Aiello was driving home to California from Las Vegas in October 2010 when she dozed off at the wheel and her car went off the road. She survived the crash but was paralyzed from the waist down with limited hand movement, confining her to a wheelchair as a quadriplegic.
“I didn’t believe it,” she tells PEOPLE. “I thought it couldn’t be real. I didn’t think that it was going to be longterm for me and it was really hard.”
After three months of therapy, she was granted six hours to go home and see her family on Christmas Day. But she and her mother didn’t even make it past the first light before they were hit by a drunk driver, leaving her mother in severe condition.
“I got a hold of my sister while we were still in the car and my family did not believe — they thought we were joking,” Aiello says. “I was like, ‘No, we got hit and it was bad.’ So they drove over to the scene and they were literally shocked. They were like, ‘How did this happen?’ ”
Aiello then went back to rehab to recover and found out two years later she had a desmoid tumor, which she overcame fourth months after her diagnosis following radiation treatment.
Despite the tragic events she’s faced and suffering from depression for a year after her first accident, Aiello, now 26, wasn’t going to let her dream slip away.
“I was exhausted from laying in bed and doing nothing,” she says. “I decided I wanted to take my life back and embrace my new normal.”
Among reteaching herself how to brush her teeth, get dressed and drive, she also learned new ways to apply makeup.
She uses her mouth to help open products and both hands to hold up a brush and weaves it between her fingers to have a steady hand. The hardest thing to do is put on fake eyelashes, she says.
“I just kept trying new ways and even if that means me gluing my eye shut, I figure it out,” she says.
Following her accident, she launched an Instagram account to share makeup tutorials and inspire other people, but she was nervous at first to show her hands.
“I cropped out my hands in editing so no one knew I was disabled,” she says. “I was really afraid to open up to the world about how I do my makeup because I’m afraid of harsh criticism.”
But a chance meeting with Tyra Banks at Beautycon changed her outlook.
“She brought me up on stage and told everybody I was going to make my hands my brand,” says Aiello, who is now a successful beauty vlogger on YouTube. “Since then on, I took that to heart and it completed changed the way I edit my videos.”
Aiello, who is a Wings for Life ambassador, recently had the chance to work on her first client: three-time surfing world champion Carissa Moore, who is getting married in December.
“It was terrifying,” Aiello says. “I thought, ‘Here’s an amazing challenge for me.’ I’ve never done bridal makeup. I do the full face, the full glam. But I decided just to do it and see the outcome and I went in and did it, and I felt so accomplished that I cried on my way home.”
With help from Moore, who Aiello calls “the sweetest soul,” she was able to confidently apply her wedding makeup trial and get practice working on another person.
Moore tells PEOPLE she was impressed with how positive Aiello was.
“It actually brought me to tears,” she says. “Just hearing her fight and her passion for life. It was really neat how she did it her way and she did an awesome job.”
To join Aiello’s team for the Wings for Life World Run produced by Red Bull on May 7, click here.