The career of model Petra Nemcova was suddenly brought to a halt when she was badly injured in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. On a photo shoot with her photographer and fiancé, Simon Atlee, who was killed in the flood, she survived only with the help of local rescuers. After this experience, Petra founded the Happy Hearts Fund (HHF), to help rebuild schools destroyed by natural disasters in countries around the world. In the ten years since HHF was founded, more than US$15 million has been raised and spent to build or rebuild 108 schools and kindergartens in 9 countries, serving more than 50,000 students.

Many people have had their lives touched by tragedy, a bright and happy existence suddenly and forever altered by a disaster outside their control. In the face of such challenges, however, some individuals decide to use that event in their lives to reach out and do good.

On December 26, 2004, Petra Nemcova, a young and beautiful model from Europe, was on location in Khao Lak, Thailand, for a photo shoot with her photographer and fiancé, Simon Atlee.

Richter scale 9.0 earthquake

In this paradisiacal setting, on a beautiful and sunny Boxing Day as they went about their lives, neither they nor anyone else realised that a 9.0 magnitude earthquake had occurred 19 miles below the sea floor, just north of the island of Sumatra. A tsunami triggered by the earthquake rushed outwards from the epicentre, causing tremendous damage and numerous deaths in surrounding countries. Coastal areas of Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were swept with the gigantic wave; even as far as the coast of Somalia, entire villages were destroyed. In Seychelles, the tsunami killed three people (with 7 others missing) and destroyed a bridge in the capital, Victoria.

The south-western coast of Thailand, just a few hundred miles north of the epicentre, was among the hardest hit. Within minutes, a series of gigantic waves roared across the beaches and carried their destruction inland. Photographer Simon Atlee was killed and Petra Nemcova was badly injured. Although she suffered a broken pelvis and other internal injuries, she saved her life by clinging to a tree trunk for 8 hours until local rescuers could come to her aid. It would take months before she recovered.

Petra’s life pre-tsunami

Her life until then had been filled with joy and success. Born in 1979 in that part of Czechoslovakia which was soon to become the Czech Republic, Petra was spotted on the streets of Prague by a scout for a modelling agency. While still a teenager, her beauty and poise soon made her a star model; over the coming years she appeared in numerous magazines and advertising campaigns.

Amongst her numerous successes, she was featured in the famous Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue every year from 2002 through 2006, and was even on the cover in 2003. During that time, Petra also appeared in television programmes and was a judge in the June 2004 “Miss Universe” competition.

The Festival de Cannes celebrated Haiti

The Festival de Cannes celebrated Haiti: Carnival in Cannes Friday night, a benefit event presented by Giorgio Armani in support of Sean Penn’s J/P Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO), Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice (APJ) and Petra Nemcova’s Happy Heart’s Fund (HHF), for their united and extraordinary work in Haiti. PHOTO: Jaguar PS

Petra’s life post-tsunami: Happy Hearts Fund

Her life was suddenly changed by the events in December 2004, when the tsunami struck Thailand.

Even while still recovering from her injuries, Petra Nemcova began to plan her work as a philanthropist. During an interview on the television programme “Good Morning America” in May 2005, she talked about returning to Thailand to thank the doctors and nurses who had helped her and “see a couple of schools and see what’s needed.” Within months of this statement, she formed a new foundation, the Happy Hearts Fund, which she still chairs and for which she campaigns vigorously.

The mission of Happy Hearts Fund (HHF) is to aid the children in areas devastated by natural disasters by reconstructing damaged and destroyed schools and building additional ones. Petra and her supporters have identified a gap in the care of children, which occurs after initial relief work has been provided, but before the local areas are able to support and re-establish infrastructure.

When an earthquake, typhoon, tsunami or other disaster has occurred, many national and international organisations are quick to provide basic care for the affected population: food, water, clothing, shelter and medical support are usually rapidly supplied. Often, however, it may take years – as many as four to six, before schools functioning. Such a long-term interruption in educational opportunities can cause great hardship for young students and can even place many at risk of never completing their schooling. HHF helps to improve these conditions by providing volunteers and money within months of the disaster; these resources are targeted so that safe, resilient and effective schools can be reopened as soon as possible.

HHF: the scale of educational activity

In the ten years since HHF was founded, it has been able to raise and spend more than US$15,000,000 to rebuild or create 108 schools or kindergartens in 9 countries. Working in Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Philippines, Columbia, Haiti and the United States, these schools serve more than 50,000 students.

Through the HHF website (happyheartsfund.org) and personal appearances, Petra also helps to organise volunteers to work with the organisation to serve children whose lives have been shaken by natural disasters. The “Bring Happiness Back!” campaign, launched in 2009, encourages volunteers to hold local events in communities around the world, to bring awareness of the importance of rebuilding schools after natural disasters and to raise money to support HHF’s programmes. The organisation also maintains a Schools Connect initiative, which allows schoolchildren and teachers to establish and maintain personal contact with students who attend re-established schools in areas that have been hit by natural disasters.

Petra, HHF and Haiti earthquake

When Haiti was the victim of a 7.0 earthquake on January 12, 2010, the world responded with immediate aid. Petra Nemcova and HHF were also quickly on the scene, bringing their full resources to help. They were able to reconstruct and open its first school in the country by May 2011, just 9 months after the disaster. Since then, the fund has opened or re-opened seven schools, with five computer labs, and has plans for five additional schools in 2015. For her work with HHF, Petra was declared an Ambassador-at-Large for Haiti in June 2012.

Personal life, work and recognition

In the years since the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, Petra Nemcova has resumed her modelling career and personal life; she has said, in an interview in 2014, that she has been dating Laurent Lamonthe, the former Prime Minister of Haiti, whom she met when working in the country after the earthquake. While she works at her successful career, however, she remains dedicated to carrying forward the work of the Happy Hearts Fund.

Recently, the Happy Hearts Fund was awarded the first World Travel Organisation’s Humanitarian Award for its contributions. In her acceptance speech, Petra said, “All of us here are pieces of a puzzle; we have different talents and skills and different gifts that we have got from life. If we can come together, we can build a more beautiful picture of the world.”

Petra Nemcova receiving the first World Travel Organisation's Humanitarian Award on behalf of the Happy Hearts Fund for its contribution and work.

Petra Nemcova (3rd from left) receiving the first (2014) World Travel Organisation’s Humanitarian Award on behalf of the Happy Hearts Fund for its contribution and work.