Photos By Navesh Chitrakar
Hope After Tragedy – Petra Němcová
World-renowned supermodel Petra Němcová has graced the pages of some of the most popular publications on the planet. Donning the covers of Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, and Sports Illustrated, and featured in campaigns with luxury brands such as Chopard, Tumi, and Mercedes, this Czech born fashion icon is synonymous with all that is glamorous. However in 2004, a personal tragedy would forever change the model’s picture-perfect life, ultimately setting her on a new trajectory as a philanthropist and the founder of Happy Hearts Fund.
It was a beautiful, sunny morning in Thailand, and my partner and I were walking along the beach. We had just finished breakfast and were headed back to our bungalow to pack for our flight home, when in an instant life changed — both for us, and millions more. There was no warning. I looked up and heard people screaming. In seconds, the bungalow completely collapsed. Glass shattered everywhere and we held on for dear life. In that moment, our strength didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if I was a good swimmer. The power of nature was unimaginable.
I must have had angels looking after me, because there was really no reason for my survival. My pelvis was broken in four places and I almost drowned many times. After clinging onto a palm tree for eight hours I was found by a Thai man who risked his life to rescue total strangers. Another wave could have come at any minute, and yet he selflessly chose to try and save others.
From this experience the most painful part was not the physical pain. It was emotional pain from hearing children screaming for help when I was holding onto a palm tree. Because there was debris around me and I was trapped I couldn’t go and help them. After half an hour I couldn’t hear their voices anymore which meant that they couldn’t hold on any longer. In that moment I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t help them.
LIFE AFTER TRAGEDY
Not only did Petra suffer serious injuries that day, she also lost her fiancé Simon Atlee. After a long recovery, she returned to Thailand to see how she could help. With the screams of children still echoing in her ears, she witnessed the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami firsthand and saw how the community remained devastated long after the first responders were gone. Heartbroken by the loss of life and shocked by the poor conditions in which men, women, and children were forced to live in, Petra made a commitment to get involved. Keeping a promise she made herself, she turned her attention to the surviving children of the community. As often is the case, the needs of this vulnerable group had been lost in the chaos. Among the chief concerns was that many children were without a safe place to learn — a common problem that can go on for 4, 6, or more years after a catastrophe.
Aid workers had rushed to deliver food, water, and temporary shelters, but other crucial problems were left unsolved: problems like damaged schools and the hope of a better future. To protect the future of these Thai children and guarantee their human right to an education, Petra founded Happy Hearts Fund (HHF) in 2006, a non-profit dedicated to rebuilding safe, resilient schools and restoring hope and opportunity in the lives of children after natural disasters.
HAPPY HEARTS FUND
Helping during the oft-ignored gap period following emergency aid and public outcry, Happy Hearts Fund brings hope and empowerment to generations of children and entire communities. Less than two percent of global humanitarian aid goes to education, and yet schools help protect children from disease, physical injury, sexual violence, psychological abuse, recruitment into armed groups, early marriage, child labour, and trafficking. The classroom has proven to be a safe space for processing the trauma of a natural disaster, and a pathway towards a better life in every measurable way. Today, Happy Hearts has built more than 150 schools in 10 countries, and has transformed the lives of over 74,000 students.
HHF is deeply invested in Nepal, a country devastated by a 7.8- magnitude earthquake in April, 2015. The disaster took the lives of nearly 9,000 people, and levelled homes and buildings across the country. To make matters worse, Nepal suffered rounds of aftershocks — and then a second major earthquake — the following month.
In November 2015, Petra and the HHF team travelled to Nepal’s Nuwakot District to meet with children and families affected by the earthquake. Homes, schools, and buildings across the country lay in ruin and families suffered from the unimaginable loss of life and shelter. In all, 16,000 schools were damaged or destroyed. As a result, children were forced to study in dangerous, crumbling buildings or in tented temporary learning centres — both unfit for study. After assessing the damage, the team aligned with strategic partners on the ground to reach the communities most in need of support. Now three schools have been completed, and construction is underway on another eight. At each one, hundreds of children laugh, play, and learn the skills they’ll need to help repair the physical, economic, and cultural fabric of their home nation.
In the wake of natural disasters, education becomes more important than ever. A safe school can impact—and even save—countless lives, bringing hope and opportunity for generations to come. With your donations and support, Happy Hearts Fund can keep working to rebuild the bright futures of children around the world.