(405) 425-5070
National
Photo by Ted Parks

‘Momma, I can see Jesus’

Magnolia Foundation honors legacy of 4-year-old girl killed by Tennessee tornado.

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — Not long before the tornado that claimed her life, 4-year-old Hattie Jo Collins posed a question.

The blond bundle of energy was riding in her family’s minivan with her mother, Macy, and baby sister, Lainey Mae, when she asked it.

“We were just driving, running errands,” Macy recalled in an interview with The Christian Chronicle. “Out of the blue, Hattie asked me if there were magnolia trees around.”

Before her death, Hattie Jo Collins asked her mother about magnolia trees.

Before her death, Hattie Jo Collins asked her mother about magnolia trees.

The fragrant trees with creamy white petals abound in the South, so Macy promised to show Hattie the next one she saw.

The young mother never got that chance — but Hattie’s question helps explain the name of the Magnolia Foundation, a ministry started by Matt and Macy Collins to honor their daughter’s memory and serve other parents who lose a child.

Hattie was one of five children and 14 adults killed March 3, 2020, when an EF4 twister battered this community 80 miles east of Nashville.

Her death made national headlines when her father, then the youth minister for the Collegeside Church of Christ in Cookeville, shared details on Facebook about his family’s experience.

After the tornado, burial plots for Hattie and her family were donated at Crest Lawn Memorial Cemetery. Still recovering from their own injuries, Matt and Macy did not see their daughter’s final resting place until the day of her funeral.


Related: They live to tell the story


At the graveside service, four magnolia trees shaded the burial plots.

“That was the first thing I noticed,” Macy said. “And I remembered that she had asked me that. … So that’s been something that we’ve hung on to. It’s just a symbol for her.”

Support in a dark time

That symbol can be seen in the magnolia tree planted at the couple’s new house a few miles from the one that was destroyed.

It can be seen in the framed portraits of magnolia trees inside the family’s home.

It can be seen in the middle name of Matt and Macy’s third daughter, a red-headed surprise — and a blessing from God — who arrived in fall 2021.

Davie Magnolia, whose name commemorates the sister she never met, is 2 years old. Lainey, who turned 1 the week of Hattie’s passing, will celebrate her fifth birthday in March.

And the symbol can be seen in the Magnolia Foundation, which helps mourning parents with funeral expenses, offers access to professional counseling and remembers deceased children at milestones such as birthdays and holidays.


Related: After tornado, a teen serves her community while grieving her 4-year-old friend


“After the loss of a child, it is incredibly easy for families to fall apart,” Matt said. “It’s our hope that by walking through that with somebody who can help them grieve — and grieve well — it will be helpful.”

Said Macy: “We really hope that it will help families feel loved and help them know that their child is not forgotten, even though they are not physically here any longer. … We hope that they can feel supported even through a really dark time.”

Matt and Macy Collins with daughters Lainey May and Davie Magnolia at the Collegeside Church of Christ in Cookeville, Tenn.

Matt and Macy Collins with daughters Lainey May and Davie Magnolia at the Collegeside Church of Christ in Cookeville, Tenn.

‘Who helps those people?’

Matt and Macy, both 33, grew up in the Mt. Juliet Church of Christ in the Nashville area. 

They began dating as students at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., and married nearly 11 years ago. 

Matt served in youth ministry for the Rivergate Church of Christ in Madison, Tenn., and later the Jefferson Avenue Church of Christ in Cookeville before moving to Collegeside a few months before the tornado. Macy has worked as a schoolteacher.

Memorial crosses near the March 3 tornado path in Cookeville, Tenn., pay tribute to the 18 people — 13 adults and five children — killed in Putnam County. A 19th Cookeville-area victim later died.

In this 2020 file photo, memorial crosses near the tornado path in Cookeville, Tenn., pay tribute to 18 people killed, including Hattie Jo Collins. A 19th Cookeville-area victim later died.

The couple’s extensive network of friends and fellow Christians provided support after Hattie’s death. One of them — Mt. Juliet minister Craig Evans — showed up with a truckful of baby formula for Lainey during the COVID-19 supply shortages.

But that’s not the case for every grieving parent.

“You can lose a kid in silence, and nobody ever knows,” Matt said. “So our thought was: Who helps those people?”

Launched just a few months ago, the Magnolia Foundation already receives multiple contacts per week, the couple said. Causes of death range from accidents and natural disasters to illnesses and stillborn births.

“This is a poor example in terms of importance, but it makes sense: It’s like when you buy a new car, and you get on the road and realize everybody is driving the same car you just bought,” Matt said. “And you never knew it existed.”

Matt Collins talks about the motivation behind the Magnolia Foundation during an interview at the ministry's office in Cookeville, Tenn.

Matt Collins talks about the motivation behind the Magnolia Foundation during an interview at the ministry’s office in Cookeville, Tenn.

‘The Lord is going to do good’

At the beginning of 2024, Matt stepped aside from youth ministry to work full time with the faith-based nonprofit. 

Macy helps on a part-time basis while her girls participate in Collegeside’s Mother’s Day Out program on Tuesdays and Thursdays.


Related: Volunteer State


Collegeside’s elders offered their encouragement — and free office space in a counseling building next door to the church. The couple plan to remain active members of the congregation.

“The Hebrews writer speaks to the endurance of Jesus on the cross,” said John Nichols, Collegeside’s teaching minister and a founding member of the Magnolia Foundation’s board of directors. “I think there’s something very faithful about Matt and Macy’s endurance, just on a daily basis. You never escape it.”

“The Hebrews writer speaks to the endurance of Jesus on the cross. I think there’s something very faithful about Matt and Macy’s endurance, just on a daily basis.”

To take their personal grief and use their experience to benefit others, Nichols suggested, exemplifies the life described in Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

“We don’t believe the Lord did this,” Nichols said of Hattie’s death. “But we certainly believe the Lord is going to do good through it. And Matt and Macy are the conduits of it.”

Tornado debris in Cookeville, Tenn., after the 2020 storm.

Tornado debris in Cookeville, Tenn., after the 2020 storm.

Remembering Hattie

In their first interview since losing Hattie nearly four years ago, Matt and Macy talked to the Chronicle about their tornado experience, their faith journey and their daughter’s amazing words the night before the storm.

“She was, like, perfect,” Matt said of Hattie.

“Yeah,” agreed Macy, her voice soft and reflective.

Matt and Macy with their late daughter Hattie Jo and her sister Lainey Mae.

Matt and Macy with their late daughter Hattie Jo and her sister Lainey Mae.

“And of course, we’ve got two other kids that we love dearly,” Matt emphasized. “But she was uniquely good.”

“I know that people will talk highly of their children, and we would talk highly of our other two as well,” Macy stressed. “But she was incredibly smart. And she was just good.”

“She wouldn’t go to just anybody. She was reserved. But at home, she was silly and funny.”

“Really good,” Matt agreed.

“She was silly and so funny and loved to entertain and loved her family so much,” Macy added.

“In public, she was quiet,” Matt said. “She wouldn’t go to just anybody. She was reserved. But at home, she was silly and funny.”

Hattie was known for wearing colorful headbands adorned with flowers, rainbows and unicorns.

Despite her shyness, she developed a special friendship with Izzy Stevens, who was a 17-year-old high school senior at the time of the tornado. Days after the storm in 2020, Stevens shared her memories of Hattie in a front-page Chronicle story.

The Collins family's tornado experience inspired Izzy Stevens to pursue a nursing career.

The Collins family’s tornado experience inspired Izzy Stevens to pursue a nursing career.

To honor their daughter, Matt and Macy started the Hattie Jo Collins Memorial Scholarship in 2020. The endowed scholarship at Tennessee Tech University, across the street from the Collegeside church, benefits nursing students.

Seeing how grateful Matt and Macy were for the medical professionals who helped their family, Stevens, now 21, chose to become a nurse.

She expects to graduate from Tennessee Tech in May. And she’s engaged to Brooks Burr, a fellow member of the Jefferson Avenue church. Matt plans to perform the wedding ceremony, scheduled for October.

“They have just blown me away,” Stevens said of Matt and Macy. “They’ve taken something so tragic and heartbreaking, and they’ve made it this big thing to help other people, which is amazing to me.

“They’ve not been in search of pity or anything,” she added. “They’ve just given it to God … and used this whole situation to glorify him.”

Collins family photos are displayed on the Magnolia Foundation office shelves.

Collins family photos are displayed on the Magnolia Foundation office shelves.

Jesus wearing white

The night before the tornado, Macy read Hattie a bedtime story and sang a few songs with her — their routine.

A lamp shone as Macy lay down beside Hattie to wait for her to fall asleep.

“She was just looking up at the ceiling,” Macy said. “We were not talking about anything. We were just being quiet until she fell asleep. And she was just looking up, and she said, ‘Momma, I can see Jesus.’”

“Momma, I can see Jesus.”

Macy paused to regain her composure before finishing the story.

“It startled me because we were not having a conversation about Jesus, you know? So I looked at her, and I said, ‘You can?’ She shook her head yes. And she said, ‘And he’s wearing all white.’”

Stunned, Macy did not ask any more questions.

“It was so strange,” the mother recalled through tears. “I mean, really, that’s the best word for it.”

Macy Collins reflects on her late daughter Hattie Jo Collins during an interview in Cookeville, Tenn.

Macy Collins reflects on her late daughter Hattie Jo Collins during an interview in Cookeville, Tenn.

The grim news

Most nights, Hattie woke up at some point and asked her mother or father to take her to their bed.

By 1:30 a.m. that Tuesday, when Macy’s phone buzzed with a tornado warning, Hattie was already sleeping between them.

Matt turned on the TV as the meteorologist urged anyone near Upperman High School to take cover. He grabbed Hattie, and Macy ran to retrieve Lainey from her crib.

With the girls in their arms, the couple made it to the hallway before a funnel cloud with winds up to 175 mph flattened their home. 

“It was right there,” Matt said of the twister. “I mean, we had nowhere else to go.”

At some point, the couple handed the girls to helpers on the scene. Most of the family’s experience remains a blur, although Matt’s Facebook post the week of the storm pieced together the numerous neighbors and fellow Christians who rushed to help.

Matt ended up in surgery for a deep cut on his right tricep, and Macy required a number of staples and stitches all over her body. Lainey suffered a knot on her head and was flown to a Nashville children’s hospital for treatment, but she survived with barely a scratch.

Matt Collins discusses his family's tornado experience.

Matt Collins discusses his family’s tornado experience.

But an eerie silence greeted any questions about Hattie’s condition.

A report circulated that she was missing, but she never really was. She died at the scene. That Tuesday night, Hattie’s grandfathers identified her body for authorities and then returned to the Cookeville hospital to deliver the grim news to the family.

Someone pushed Matt in a wheelchair to Macy’s room, where she was unable to get out of bed. Close relatives joined them.

“They just said, ‘She didn’t make it,’” Matt recalled. “And it was everything you’d imagine it would be, you know? I mean, we just wept in every sense of the word. It was awful. It was awful.”

“They just said, ‘She didn’t make it.’ And it was everything you’d imagine it would be, you know? I mean, we just wept in every sense of the word. It was awful. It was awful.”

A way to honor Hattie

Despite Hattie’s death, Matt and Macy’s faith remained strong.

“For me, there was never really a time where I was mad at God or didn’t believe in God,” Matt said. “I certainly wasn’t happy, you know. But I really was just sad, just really sad. And I still am.

“The thing that Hattie told Macy before she went to sleep, we’ve hung on to that,” he added. “Who’s to say how I would feel had she not said that?”

Macy echoed her husband.

“I never felt angry at God,” she said. “Was I angry at the situation? Yes.”

At times the grief felt overwhelming. And sometimes it still does.


Related: On Sunday after tornadoes, sadness gives way to gladness


If Hattie had to go, they wonder why God didn’t go ahead and take the entire family.

“We wish we could have gone with her,” said Macy, her voice choking with emotion.

But they hold on to Hattie’s words. Her description of Jesus wearing white. Her question about magnolia trees.

Despite their agonizing loss, they believe God has a purpose for them.

Matt and Macy Collins did not lose faith after Hattie Jo's death. Instead, they seek to honor her memory.

Matt and Macy Collins did not lose faith after Hattie Jo’s death. Instead, they seek to honor her memory.

“When you lose a child, there are so many things that you are not able to do with them anymore,” Matt said. “And so we sought after something that we could do that would bear her mark.”

As a result, the Magnolia Foundation was born.

“Serving families that have lost kids — for us, that bears the mark of Hattie,” Matt said. “So every day and every time that we are working on that, we are representing her and her life. And by doing that, we are honoring her.”

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. He covered the 2020 tornado and returned to Cookeville to interview Matt and Macy Collins. Reach him at [email protected].


More photos

Matt and Macy Collins catch up with Lainey Mae and Davie Magnolia after a Mother's Day Out program at the Collegeside church.

Matt and Macy Collins catch up with Lainey Mae and Davie Magnolia after a Mother’s Day Out program at the Collegeside church.

Matt Collins hold Davie Magnolia after a Mother's Day Out program at the Collegeside church.

Matt Collins holds Davie Magnolia after a Mother’s Day Out program at the Collegeside church.

Macy Collins fixes Lainey Mae's hair after a Mother's Day Out program at the Collegeside church.

Macy Collins fixes Lainey Mae’s hair after a Mother’s Day Out program at the Collegeside church.

Filed under: Children Collegeside Church of Christ Cookeville Hattie Jo Collins Magnolia Foundation Middle Tennessee National News Partners Tennessee Tennessee tornadoes Top Stories tornadoes

Don’t miss out on more stories like this.

Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.

Did you enjoy this article?

Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.

$
Personal Info

Dedicate this Donation

In Honor/Memory of Details

Card Notification Details

Credit Card Info
This is a secure SSL encrypted payment.
Billing Details

Donation Total: $3 One Time