Petra Němcová tells us the origin story behind Her Happy Hearts Fund, which rebuilds schools in areas impacted by natural disasters.

On December 26, 2004, my partner and I woke up early for a walk on the beach on our last day in Thailand. When we returned to our bungalow to start packing, we started to hear screams. I looked up through our window and saw people running from the right and the left. The next second, a ten and a half meter high wave crashed into us. A wave of that power, a tsunami, is like concrete crushing everything in front of it—hotels, cars, trees—and taking them away with the water.

That day wasn’t about who the stronger or better or smarter swimmer was. I thought my partner would be okay because he was a much stronger swimmer, but he didn’t make it. It was really a matter of luck.

Petra Nemcova in Philippines with Children for Happy Hearts Fund
Credit: Courtesy Happy Hearts Fund

I held onto a palm tree for eight hours that day. The strength of the wave broke my pelvis in four places. I remember hearing children scream for help. They were really close by, somewhere like the next palm tree, but I couldn’t reach them because debris was everywhere around me. After half an hour, I didn’t hear them scream anymore. They couldn’t hold on. In that moment, I wasn't able to help them, but today and every day since I can. It’s one of the things that drives me—knowing that all of us, every day, can make a difference and help somebody. It’s a powerful place to be.

When I could walk again, I went back to Thailand with two of my friends and my sister. I wanted to see where my help was needed to make the biggest impact. We visited different parts of the community like hospitals and TLCs (Temporary Learning Centers), which are like makeshift schools. Some of the TLCs that we saw were just old structures and orphan children were sleeping on their concrete floors. For me, the most horrible things to see were the children’s eyes looking not at you, but through you. They were looks without any hope—complete internal torture.

Petra Nemcova in Napal Overlooking Schoolchildren for Happy Hearts Fund
Credit: Courtesy Happy Hearts Fund

We started to realize that when first responders left, the communities are forgotten. These survivors wait four years, six years, and even longer just to have safe schools for their children to go to. I understood that this was something that happened after every natural disaster, not just in Thailand. There’s this gap period where families are waiting years to get back to normal life. And to me, that was unacceptable. These children went through a tsunami or an earthquake and lost their homes, their schools, their family members, and friends. No child should have to wait six or more years to have their lives back with some stability. They had suffered enough, and that’s why we started the Happy Hearts Fund.

These children need to be in an environment that provides them safety and an opportunity to heal through drawing, painting, working with computers, or other kinds of activity and education. I wanted to get these forgotten children back to school—and not just any school, but a safe school that’s prepared to withstand another natural disaster.

Petra Nemcova Happy Hearts Fund in Mexico 
Credit: Courtesy Happy Hearts Fund

This is my way of having a big impact. I call schools “dream-making machines,” because they are the dream and they create dreams for children in these communities. And it’s bigger than just the students. If you rebuild a house for a family, you help that one family, but if you rebuild the school, it helps children from all the families in the community. When their kids are safe in school, parents can start working again and earning to be able to feed their families. Then families from other communities start migrating toward the school, which helps the economy, too. It’s an incredible ripple effect.

We built our first school in Thailand two years after the tsunami of 2004. Back then, I never imagined we would accomplish so much. By the end of this year we will have opened 10 schools in Nepal following the devastating earthquake of 2016. Those schools will be added to our grand total of 162 schools.

VIDEO: The Happy Hearts Fund Celebrates its Accomplishments

Sometimes people don’t realize that the first response is crucial to saving lives after a natural disaster, but rebuilding gets those people back to stability. I think it’s important, if you have something to give, to donate some percentage to the first response and save some to also donate to rebuilding. Whether it’s a hut, a hospital, or a Happy Hearts Fund school, you're helping the survivors directly, right on the ground.

It’s amazing to see the change, how you can really transform a community and transform the future of children. It’s beautiful.

As told to Shalayne Pulia.

Petra Němcová has also teamed up with Edgardo Osorio, designer and co-founder of AQUAZZURA to create the Happy Hearts sandal with 25 percent of proceeds going to the Happy Hearts Fund.

For more information or to donate directly, visit