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‘This will be a safe place’

By Teresa K. Weaver


Amber Millard works on her new Habitat home, which she will share with her husband and two young sons.
©Habitat for Humanity/ Ezra Millstein


Amber Millard and her husband, Ethan, huddled in a closet under a quilt with their two small sons and the family dog as the tornado reduced their apartment complex to rubble. When the roaring finally stopped, they peeked out from under the quilt and saw nothing but sky.

“I thought everything was gone,” Amber recalled, still rattled by the memory one year later. “And I thought I had suffocated my baby, because I was holding him so tight. But he was only sleeping. He had slept through the whole thing.”

Looking back, Amber remembers a strange sense of peace as her family sat in that closet, listening to what sounded like a freight train rumbling directly overhead.

“It was like God had us in a bubble,” she said.

The loss of all but one
The young family walked away unharmed that day, but they lost every worldly possession except for one: Amber’s handmade hope chest, given to her by her father when she turned 16.

“That’s the one piece of furniture we still have,” said Amber, 23. “And all of my photographs were in there. It was amazing.

“Now my father has refinished the chest. It looks more beautiful than ever.”

The hope chest soon will take a place of honor in Amber and Ethan’s new home, built in partnership with Joplin Area Habitat for Humanity. On a recent bright and windy day, more than two dozen high school and college students on spring break started building it.

A time for rebuilding
Amber was on the build site, taking time off from her job at the Cerebral Palsy Center, where she teaches 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, to help put up the first walls.

Amber’s husband works the overnight shift as a stocker at Walmart, so he has to sleep during normal construction hours. But Amber’s father and other family members had turned out to help chalk up sweat-equity hours toward their house.

The Millards’ youngest son, Noah, was only a couple of months old when the tornado hit. His brother, Samuel, was almost 2, and he still suffers a little anxiety when the weather turns bad.

“After the tornado passed, it started raining, and that’s what he remembers,” Amber said. “When we drove around Joplin afterward, he thought the rain did all the damage. So now, whenever it rains, he just repeats, ‘It’s raining, it’s raining.’ He doesn’t like it all.”

‘I can help’
In addition to working and tending to her young sons, Amber is now pursuing a degree in psychology. Seeing the emotional aftermath of last spring’s tornado has inspired her to become a counselor, specializing in troubled children.

“I think the tornado made us all stronger,” Amber said. “But seeing how some people are still struggling made me start thinking, ‘I can help.’ ”

Planning for the future is possible again, she said, because her family will soon be in a home of its own.

“This will be a safe place,” she said, looking at the concrete foundation and wood slabs. “That’s the most important thing of all. We will have a safe place for our boys to grow up.”

Return to the series home page:
‘You can see hope here’: One year after the 2011 tornadoes


‘Every house…gets us closer’

Outsiders might still see damage, but most people here see tremendous progress and endless possibilities.

Tornadoes and flooding in the central U.S.
Our local Habitat affiliates are leading the cleanup and rebuilding efforts. Learn more about this disaster recovery and how you can help.