After a whirlwind trip to Miami packed with promotional obligations, Petra Nemcová tiredly climbs into the backseat of a Lincoln Navigator that will take her to the airport. Tonight, she will fly back to her home in New York City, repack her suitcase, and catch an early morning flight to Europe. Dressed in a plain white tee shirt, tight black pants and a fitted leather jacket, it’s easy to see why the five-foot-ten blonde has graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. But behind the perfectly coiffed hair, artfully applied make-up and go-go-go lifestyle, Petra exudes a certain calmness, almost fragility, when she closes her eyes for a brief moment to collect her thoughts.
As the founder and chairwoman of the Happy Hearts Fund, a non-profit foundation dedicated to rebuilding schools and restoring hope and opportunity in the lives of children after natural disasters, Petra spends her days raising awareness and funding for “forgotten communities.” When a natural disaster strikes, emergency first response teams usually remain in the affected area for six to twelve months before moving on. “They help the immediate needs, but you don’t rebuild houses and communities in that amount of time,” Petra says with earnest conviction, undoubtedly flashing back to her own brush with death in 2004.
While on a fairy-tale holiday in Thailand, Petra and her boyfriend, photographer Simon Atlee, were struck by one of the deadliest tsunamis in modern history, which killed over 230,000 people in fourteen countries. The tsunami sucked the pair out of their beachfront bungalow and hurled them into the raging sea. As the surging waters battered her with debris, Petra’s pelvis shattered in four places. She clung to a tree for eight hours before she was finally rescued.
“In situations like that you find inner strength that you never thought was there,” Petra insists. “It’s a matter of survival, so you actually don’t have a choice. Under normal circumstances, I would have been moaning and complaining if I was all cut up, but in that instance, I just had to go with it. The pain was overwhelming, but if you give into it, you’re losing more chances to survive.” Sadly, Simon did not share her good fortune. The strong current dragged the two in opposite directions and they never found each other again. Simon’s body was located and formally identified several months later.
After spending three weeks recuperating in a Thai hospital, Petra went to her parents’ home in the Czech Republic to heal her broken bones and her heavy heart. She returned to Thailand a few months after the tsunami and felt overcome with sadness by the amount of families without homes, children without parents and entire communities swept away. “I tried to understand what we could do to create the biggest impact on many levels,” she explains, her eyes lighting up with passion. “Happy Hearts Fund comes in when it’s not attractive to be there. First responders leave and the children and communities are forgotten for up to five or ten years.”
Though giving a disaster-stricken community hope is no easy feat, Petra believes that the first step is to rebuild schools. “By creating safe, disaster-proof schools, you can touch the lives of children and their families,” she says. “Once there is a safe school, families from other communities will move to the area because they want the best for their child. It completely changes the economic structure of the community.”
Since the organization was founded in 2006, Petra and her team have rebuilt 70 schools and helped over 42,000 children and 350,000 residents. Every year, the Happy Hearts Fund holds a fundraising gala with a celebrity-studded guest list at the Metropolitan Pavilion to raise awareness about a different country. Last year, Mark Anthony performed alongside Latin American opera singers in tribute to Mexico. “Our goal is to raise funds in order to rebuild more schools and also to increase tourism,” Petra reveals. “It helps the country in two different ways and makes a much bigger impact.”
To create an even larger impact, Petra recently partnered with the skin care line Clinique to create a limited edition Happy Heart fragrance, with a percent of the proceeds going to the charity. “Ten dollars from each fragrance goes to rebuilding schools,” Petra exclaims, noting that the perfume retails for only $37. “That shows amazing commitment from Clinique. It makes me so happy that there are so many ambassadors of happiness right now.”
With such a positive and uplifting attitude, it’s only fitting that Petra opts to live away from the hustle and bustle that infiltrates most areas of Manhattan, and instead, reside in the familyfriendly neighborhood of Battery Park. “It’s quiet and it has water views,” brags Petra, who says she moved there to feel more connected to nature. “There’s a strong sense of community. There are great schools and lots of wonderful restaurants. Plus, people actually talk to each other!”
Despite her years of strutting down the runway at designer fashion shows, Petra asserts that she has absolutely no time to shop. But when the mood strikes, she prefers to comb the racks of small independent boutiques rather than large-scale department stores. Instead, she prefers to spend her down time sipping tea at the Greenwich Hotel or feasting on oysters at Lure Fishbar. “It’s our hangout,” she says with a wink. “We get like 14 people together and celebrate.”
And these days, Petra has plenty to celebrate. As the ninth anniversary of the tsunami approaches on Dec. 26, the supermodel-turnedphilanthropist feels lucky to be alive and even more determined to help those affected by natural disasters. “Before the tsunami struck, it had been my goal to help children through education,” she recalls. “But when it happened, it brought more opportunities for me to help in that arena.” By the time the tenth anniversary rolls around, Petra hopes that the Happy Hearts Fund will be able to open 100 schools in countries throughout the world. “It’s all about bringing positivity and hope.”