When a storm of deadly twisters ravaged Indiana in March 2012, Stephanie Decker saved her two kids – but lost both her legs.
Now, less than a year after the tragedy, Decker, 38 – who describes the sacrifice as a “small price to pay” for her kids’ safety – is already up on prosthetic legs thanks to countless hours of grueling physical therapy. She has barely let the traumatic experience slow her down – and instead created the Stephanie Decker Foundation that aims to help kids with disabilities.
“I’m a better person now,” says Decker. “Life goes on.”
The tornado that ripped through Henryville leveled the Deckers’ house on top of Stephanie as she covered son Dominic, 9, and daughter Reese, 6. A steel beam crashed down on top of the three of them, but her children escaped the disaster without a scratch.
“As parents, we sacrifice for our kids,” says Decker.
These days, her routine at home is pretty similar to what it used to be. “The only difference is I wake up in the morning and I put legs on,” she says. “There are days that I go ‘This is hard, it hurts.’ But all I have to do is take one look at my kids and it’s enough. I wasn’t going to let this stop me.”
That determination is clear in Decker, who went as high up as President Obama to help her access a military grade water resistant prosthetic leg so she can swim with her children.
“Stephanie’s never been one to take no for an answer,” says her husband Joe, a high school math teacher. “I’m so thankful I didn’t get to the house and find my wife and kids dead. Stephanie’s so strong, she’s the core of our family.”
Though the kids still have nightmares, the Decker family is getting better every day, and are grateful to be together.
The Deckers’ son, Dominic, says getting past the tragedy took a bit of time. “My mom and dad made us take baby steps,” he says. “We’d sleep in their bed, and then sleep right by their bed, and then sleep on the couch and then sleep in the front room and then sleep upstairs.”
Asked if his mom is a hero, he says, “Yeah, because she saved me.”
And Decker aims to help others, too.
In December, her fledging foundation received a $10,000 donation from Shutterfly during an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres‘s show. She’s also recently partnered with NubAbility Athletics – which helps kids with congenital and traumatic amputations compete in sports – to set up scholarships for kids to attend their sports camps.
“I should have been dead in 15 minutes,” says Decker. “But I told my kids I was going to be here and that everything was going to be okay.”
More Heroes Among Us:
Know a hero? Send suggestions to email@example.com. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine