World News

Supermodel on a mission to rebuild schools after disasters

Posted June 8, 2017 4:38 p.m. EDT

Supermodel Petra Nemcova has a serious mission -- to help children in need -- and it stems from a desperate moment when she herself was helpless.

In December 2004 an earthquake in the Indian Ocean triggered a tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia and killed more than 227,000 people. Nemcova, on holiday in Thailand, found herself clinging to a palm tree for more than eight hours. She couldn't move. The wave's force shattered her pelvis.

But something else was slowly breaking her heart.

"I was hearing children screaming for help," she told CNN, "After half an hour I didn't hear them anymore and that meant they couldn't hold on."

That memory haunted Nemcova. The Czech-born model returned to Thailand as soon as she could walk again, and after visiting temporary shelters and makeshift hospitals, she decided to make an impact.

In 2006 Nemcova founded the Happy Hearts Fund, which rebuilds safe, sturdy schools in places affected by natural disasters. Nemcova focused on schools because she saw firsthand how children can suffer in temporary buildings without safe places to learn and grow.

"You lose a generation," she said. "School is an incredible change-maker. It's really rebuilding the future of the community."

Nemcova and Happy Hearts Fund spent most of the last decade financing and building schools around the world. In 2017 alone, the charity opened schools in Nepal, Haiti, Mexico and the Philippines.

She's not stopping there. Nemcova plans to open and rebuild even more schools through her foundation, particularly in disaster areas that are forgotten once the emergency response tapers off.

"Happy Hearts Fund is really a huge part of my life. It's something that has taught me about compassion. It has taught me about incredible beauty which is in the human spirit," Nemcova said. "I've met the most incredible, inspiring individuals."

Since its inception, Happy Hearts Fund has built 162 schools in 10 countries, helping 99,500 students. Thailand, Indonesia, Peru, Colombia, Chile, and the US also have benefited from Nemcova's efforts.

"We had the goal to build one school," Nemcova said of her early aspirations. "It just shows the power of togetherness. When we come together with the same values and same goals we can create things beyond our imagination."