When Taylor Storch, 13, was killed skiing, her family found solace in helping others through organ donation
Credit: Courtesy Storch family

It was a split second that changed the lives of everyone in the Storch family – and one they used to change millions of lives.

On the last ski run of the day on March 15, 2010, Taylor Storch, 13, along with her father, Todd and brother, Ryan, was excited to be on the beautiful Colorado slopes. “We were stopping to take pictures, everyone was smiling and laughing and Taylor was having a blast,” says Todd, 44, of his Coppell, Texas, family, all of whom wore helmets.

Then his teenage daughter lost control and hit a tree. “We went from it being the most amazing trip ever,” says Todd, “to the worst nightmare.”

Taylor was airlifted from Grand Junction to Denver where doctors the pronounced the vibrant, funny and athletic teenager brain-dead.

“Devastating is not a strong enough word,” says Taylor’s mother, Tara, 43. “You are numb, you are in shock, breathing is difficult. I felt like I was wearing a cement cape.”

Her grieving parents and siblings Ryan, 14, and Peyton, 12, found some comfort in knowing that by donating Taylor’s organs, others would be given a chance at life. And they launched the nonprofit Taylor’s Gift to promote organ donation, helping to add some 2 million names to the donor registry in Texas. The foundation also provides scholarships to college for kids who are leaders in their communities, as Taylor was.

Giving Life

The bubbly honor student’s organs changed the lives of five strangers (one of whom remains anonymous) who connected with the Storches to show their gratitude and tell them how Taylor’s life changed theirs.

The teenager’s heart went to Patricia Winters, 42, a labor and delivery nurse and mom of two who had a life-threatening heart condition. “Now I can walk, breathe, pick up my boys at school,” she says. “I have a tomorrow because of Taylor.”

Winters has formed a close bond with the Storches, she says, and feels like part of the family.

“When I leave them, I have an ache that goes with it,” she says. “It is so hard to explain, there is so much to our relationship. As a parent, we know we don’t ever want to feel what Tara feels. If my child’s heart was in her body, I would want that same closeness that we have together.”

Taylor’s cornea went to Ashley Zoller, 22; a kidney went to Jonathan Finger, 35; and a kidney and pancreas went to Jeff Kartus, 52.

“Taylor is part of me now,” says Kartus, whose diabetes destroyed his pancreas and kidney. The Littleton, Colo., grandfather says he’s grateful for every day. “I have to live my life to the fullest; I wouldn’t want to let Taylor down.”

Raising Awareness

In honor of April’s Donate Life month, the Storches have released a book about Taylor’s life and how their work with the foundation helps them heal. Taylor’s Gift: A Courageous Story of Giving Life and Renewing Hope is out now.

“Talking about Taylor keeps me moving forward,” says Tara. “If I didn’t have that, I might still be in bed. Her room hasn’t been touched, I can’t bear to change it. We need that purpose, we need to find the good in it and grab onto that. That helps us manage the grief better.”

They have also partnered with OPI Nail Lacquer for the Paint it Forward campaign, using Taylor’s favorite color to create “Taylor Blue” polish to help spread awareness. Supporters paint their nails in the color, snap a pic and send it to TaylorBlue@TaylorsGift.org to help raise organ donation awareness.

“This is part of Taylor’s legacy,” says Todd. “She was that kid everyone looked up to, that everyone wanted to be around. Helping others learn more about donation is bigger than us, it is bigger than Taylor. It is all for the greater good. We are choosing to do our best to take something horrible and turn it into something that brings life to others.”

More Heroes Among Us:

Know a hero? Send suggestions to heroesamongus@peoplemag.com. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine