Four months after a near-death tsunami experience, Petra Nemcova returned to the scene of the Thailand disaster with the sole purpose of helping where she could. A year later, she established the Happy Hearts Foundation (HHF), which continues to build schools for children in the aftermath of a disaster. Here, she tells Charmaine Ho more.
What inspired you to start HHF?
There was a huge need and the need was not being satisfied. When I returned to Thailand after being able to walk again, I talked to families in the shelters, the hospitals, or in temporary schools. I learnt that they were really worried because the first responders were leaving, and they still didn’t have homes, livelihoods, or schools for their children. And I learnt that this is a pattern that happens over and over, where the first responders leave and families wait for years before they have a school to go to. To me, it was unacceptable for children who have suffered so much, who lost many of their friends and family, to not be able to go to school again; it is extremely damaging.
Why did you choose building schools above other humanitarian aspects?
Because schools are not just about education; it is about a sense of normalcy that allows them to start healing from the trauma. The longer it takes for children to get back to a proper school, the deeper the trauma gets and the harder it is for them to recover. So sending children to school helps with the trauma, gives them an education and helps them with future job opportunities. But it also helps with the families. Parents can start to earn a living again because their children are at school. Schools are such an incredible powerhouse because it has so many ripple effects, not just with the children and family members, but also the economy and future generations: For every year a child is at school, it increases their future wages by 10 percent. Plus, it’s very dangerous for children to be out of school because they are exposed to all kinds of challenges; especially after natural disasters. There is a lot of trafficking that happens with children because they are spread all over; there is no system.
Thirteen years on, what would you say is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt from your HHF journey?
There are so many to learn every single day—about different countries, their cultures, their mentalities, how you can improve the way you do things… But one of the biggest lessons is really how much is possible, how much can be achieved, when people who have the same values and goals work together. I would have never imagined that this could have resulted in 201 schools around the world. But it shows you that anything is possible when you put your heart, passion and hard work into it; especially when you work with like-minded, and even like-hearted, people.
From top: Petra Nemcova with children in Indonesia. Proceeds from Chopard’s rose gold and sapphire Happy Hearts bracelet go towards the rebuilding of schools.