Almost a year after a tornado destroyed her house in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Amie Hall Matthews is finally starting to heal. Last month, the mother-of-three moved into a new house with the help of a student-founded organization, and now says she is ready to give back.
On April 27, Matthews, 24, was at home watching television with her 10-month-old daughter when her husband called. "He was screaming, 'Hide, Amie -- take the kids and hide," she told The Huffington Post.
Gathering her daughter Kristyn in her arms, Matthews looked out the window at -- to her horror -- the biggest tornado she had ever seen. It was heading straight toward her house.
Before Matthews could reach her two other children asleep in the bedroom, the tornado hit, uprooting the home with everyone inside.
"We were in the tornado," she said. "I was spinning and spinning -- and spitting bark and dust out of my mouth. I had my daughter in my arms but I thought she was dead. I thought we were all going to die."
Matthews and her children were thrown more than a hundred yards by the tornado, finally landing in an avalanche of debris on a neighboring property. Her house was totally destroyed -- but miraculously, Matthews and her three children, including 4-year-old Khloe and 2-year-old Karter, all survived.
Grateful as she was for her family's safety, Matthews said that the devastation was overwhelming and complete. "I asked myself, 'What are we going to do now? How are we going to get on our feet? I felt so helpless," she said.
For many months, Matthews and her husband, Keith, tried to get by. In addition to losing their home and possessions, their son, Karter, had suffered a traumatic concussion during the storm and needed medical care. The family first stayed in an overcrowded shelter, then a hotel, before finally moving into a tiny apartment, too small for three active kids.
It was then that Matthews met Zarah Trinh -- a 23-year-old college senior at University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa who had lost three close friends in the disaster.
"It was a nightmare. The whole city was destroyed," Trinh said of the storm's aftermath. "People were in the streets, screaming and crying for their kids. There was this feeling of hopelessness, of shock."
Seeing the widespread physical and emotional trauma around them, Trinh and her best friend, Kyle Rice, 24, created Taking Back Tuscaloosa.
"When we looked around, we realized that although there were a lot of localized efforts going on and many volunteers, many people who needed help still weren't getting it. There was something missing," Trinh said.
The idea behind Taking Back Tuscaloosa, said Trinh, is inspiring members of the community to reach out to help others -- one person at a time. "We wanted to show people that you can make a difference if you just care," she said.
Using Facebook as a campaign base, Trinh and Rice started organizing fundraisers, including a successful benefit concert. They also worked closely with other local relief efforts, such as the Tuscaloosa Disaster Relief Fund and Habitat For Humanity.
It was while interviewing survivors for a promotional video for the relief fund that Trinh and Rice met Amie Matthews and her family.
"She had nothing," Trinh said. "She was so young, had three kids and one child was injured. We told them we were going to do everything we could to get them a new house."
Trinh and Rice kept their promise. After many calls and appeals to Habitat For Humanity, Matthews and her family were approved for a new home.
In February, the family of five finally got to move in. And Matthews said she is ready to move on -- and to give back.
The death toll following the storms that hit Alabama in April reached 249.
"A lot of people still haven't recovered. We're all still dealing with it and many people feel forgotten," Matthews said.
She was inspired by Trinh and Rice -- and wants to start a non-profit of her own. "It'll be called "Healing From The Storm." I want to help people get back on their feet. So many people helped me and it was so much easier knowing that people cared," she said.
Trinh and Rice also also continuing their work in Tuscaloosa and the two hope to one day spearhead disaster relief efforts nationwide. "When you rebuild someone's home, it's not just the rebuilding of the house," said Trinh. "It's the rebuilding of a life."
Below are before and after photographs of the Matthews' home: