Interview with Petra Nemcova

Petra Nemcova, Happy Hearts FundBY STEPHENIE FOSTEROn December 26 2004, a tsunami of devastating proportions hit the Indian Ocean, killing more than 230,000 people and displacing more than 1.4 million. Former model Petra Němcová was vacationing in Thailand when the 2004 tsunami struck. Several months later, Petra returned to Thailand to see what she could do to help with the recovery and reconstruction process. Seeing an urgent need, Petra started the Happy Hearts Fund, which works to rebuild schools and provide opportunities to children in post-disaster areas.

I interviewed Petra about her work in December 2009 at the time of the 5th anniversary of the Asian Tsunami. Last week, I went back to Petra to ask her to put the horrific earthquake in Haiti into perspective.

How did your personal experience motivate you to take action? Recovering from the tsunami, I saw so many compelling examples of people overcoming adversity. I talked with family and friends and decided to do something. I saw the power of one entity that is more powerful than nature's wrath - the compassion of the human heart. A few months after the tsunami, I returned to Thailand to survey the ravaged aftermath. What struck me the most was the enormous gap in providing support for children. They were traumatized, voiceless, without schools and without support! I felt the need to act.

In 2006, I created the Happy Hearts Fund (HHF) to focus on rebuilding the lives of those children in Thailand. Since then, the Happy Hearts Fund team, led by the Executive Director Phillip Caputo, has gone on to work in seven additional countries that have since been affected by natural disaster, including Indonesia, Peru, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Haiti, India and Hurricane Katrina-affected areas of the United States.

How many people has the organization touched around the world? Globally, HHF programs benefit more than 12,000 children and 230,000 community members annually. It aims to advocate and provide for disadvantaged children who have had to endure hardship and who are not receiving the essential and sustainable help they need for healthy childhood development. It actively partners with charities, donors and foundations committed to providing immediate, tangible assistance for children.

Can you talk about the programmatic work that Happy Hearts is engaged in today? HHF is a relatively young group but it has already distinguished itself as one of the most innovative and adaptive organizations contributing to post-disaster recovery. It has identified a yawning intervention gap between immediate post-disaster and long-term reconstruction that is both poignantly critical and woefully undeserved. HHF has wisely chosen to concentrate its efforts there, and it has identified children's education as one of the most sure-fire ways to enable a community to come back from the brink.

To me, the most effective way to help entire communities recover and rebuild is to enable children to return to school as soon as possible. When the children have access to a safe school environment, the healing and recovery can begin. While the children are at school, the rest of the family can concentrate on reconstructing their lives and going back to their day jobs. Rebuilding of schools helps children in their recovery process and helps bring the community back on its feet. Too often, rebuilding schools is not as high on the reconstruction priority list as it should be.

We attribute much of our success to the Millennium Development Goal framework and the work of the United Nations in general. MDG Goal Two in particular – Universal Primary Education – has provided our projects and partners with vital reference points and a robust policy framework; and it has informed both our programmatic conceptualization and implementation.

HHF rebuilds schools damaged by natural disasters and establishes computer labs within them, which enhances the quality of education for children while teaching new skills. HHF also incubates and fosters a community-oriented business, as a programmatic companion to the new schools, thereby ensuring a long-term funding stream for the maintenance and development of the school, and, by extension, the community.

Just last week, Haiti experienced a devastating earthquake that is almost beyond comprehension. Given your personal experience and your work with the Happy Hearts Fund, please help us put this disaster into perspective. The Haitian earthquake reminds us that natural disasters do indeed discriminate. As a point of comparison, the 1989 San Francisco earthquake was actually stronger - at 7.1 on the Richter scale - than the earthquake that hit Haiti last week. Yet, when you weigh the loss of lives and levels of devastation, there is no comparison. 63 people died in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. We will not know the final death toll in Haiti for months to come (if we ever really do), but the estimates run anywhere from 50,000 – 150,000. It is heartbreaking.

Some of this stark disparity is due to how close the Haitian quake was located to the earth’s surface. But the real reason is poverty. Years of civil strife, environmental degradation and crippling poverty have left Haiti in dire straits. That is why international support is of such extreme importance. They had nothing to start with, how they can recover or rebuild?

In 2007, the Happy Hearts Fund team and I visited Haiti for the first time with Yele Haiti, an active Haitian NGO founded by musician Wyclef Jean. Since then, we have been working in partnership to develop innovative educational and microenterprise programs. We fell in love with the people of Haiti, and we cannot believe that now they must endure even more.

The first responders are now performing heroic work, and they need all the support they can get. At HHF, we see ourselves as advocates for the children of Haiti during the reconstruction phase. We already know from experience that they are too often forgotten after the TV cameras and helicopters go home. We will remain in Haiti and will continue to rebuild schools over the long term. We will work hard to bring happiness back to children of Haiti.

How can others become involved? To commemorate the 5th anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Happy Hearts Fund launched a new awareness raising campaign “Bring Happiness Back!” which shines a much-needed spotlight on both the devastatingly negative impact that natural disasters have on children, if they are left forgotten and without help, and the equally positive multiplier effect that a simple, but smart, intervention of educational resources can have on a community's reconstruction over the long-term.

Given the urgent need in Haiti, we have oriented the “Bring Happiness Back!" campaign to ensure that we are well positioned to move quickly to assist the children of Haiti as soon as possible through rebuilding schools. We are committed to making sure that we can fill the gap in service delivery. We urge people to visit our Web site at and to consider supporting our school reconstruction efforts. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. TWITTER: FACEBOOK:

Finding practical solutions for the complex problem of poverty alleviation

Update on Haitian Earthquake