Petra Nemcova Lights the Way
PHOTOGRAPHS BY WARWICK SAINT
Long V-neck dress with draped tulip skirt, Doo-Ri ($1,195). Barneys Co-op, 832 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Ribes necklace in gold ($450), Heath cuff in gold ($372), Flutter by Jill Golden. Black suede T-strap sandals, Gucci ($895). Bal Harbour Shops, 9700 Collins Ave.
Welcome to the unexpected life trajectory of Petra Nemcova: winning a modeling contest for the Czech Republic in 1996, traveling the world as a supermodel by 2003 and clinging injured to a tree to save her very life during the 2004 South Asian tsunami. More recently, she’s been spending time helicoptering above earthquake-ravaged Haiti to survey destroyed elementary schools, and working with world leaders to promote disaster relief. Her Happy Hearts Fund, a global schoolrebuilding initiative spanning nine countries, has built 50 new schools and touched the lives of 31,000 kids to date. It’s anything but glamorous, and that’s just the way Petra wants it.
Obviously the South Asian tsunami altered your life. How did you see things before the disaster?
PETRA NEMCOVA: I knew five years prior that a goal in my life was to help children. I was envisioning my true calling. It actually started when I left the Czech Republic. I took a year off, barely spoke English, and thought, How can I help children? I don’t have any resources. I come from a small, poor country. The tsunami experience really sped up that process of being able to be of service to others.
There’s so much need after a disaster. What was it that drew you to children’s education in particular?
After the tsunami, when I was still in hospitals in Thailand and the Czech Republic, I was very frustrated because I couldn’t walk for many months. I couldn’t go help. My own education was really when I went back to Thailand four months later with a couple of my friends and my sister. The first responders had departed and there were very few organizations helping. We saw people—children and communities—losing everything, from material things to their loved ones. I started seeing a long gap after the first responders departed. Sometimes that gap is there for two years, but it can take up to 10 full years before children have a safe school to attend. The most impactful thing for me was to see children looking through you, not looking at you. That’s how the Happy Hearts Fund began, because schools are central to a community. Once a school is rebuilt, it gives a hope to the rest of the community.