Dec. 16, 2009— -- Nearly five years ago Petra Nemcova was swept from her hotel room when a tsunami struck Thailand. Now the 30-year-old model is helping to heal others by rebuilding schools for the children who lost everything, not just in the deadly 2004 tsunami but in natural disasters around the world.
"Really, honestly, what I'm doing now, being able to improve, and better lives of children, that's what I always wanted to do," Nemcova said.
Four months after Nemcova clung to a tree for eight hours to save her life she went back to visit the tsunami zone. She said she would never forget the faces of the children.
"They lost their parents or their brothers and sisters. They didn't have anywhere to go. They didn't have any stability. When you looked at those children they didn't actually look at you. ... They looked through you. And it was this look without hope," Nemcova said.
Nemcova founded the Happy Hearts Fund to build schools for children in areas ruined by natural disasters.
Five years later, the foundation has expanded and has provided help to children in eight different countries.
The team renovated and rebuilt the Chao Thai Mai School in Thailand.
They also built a primary school, helping a total of more than 1,500 children in Thailand.
The foundation built one primary school and 33 kindergartens in Indonesia, helping nearly 2,000 children. Indonesia was struck not only by the 2004 tsunami but by a devastating earthquake in 2006.
In Peru, which suffered a deadly earthquake in 2007, Nemcova helped rebuild two schools that served more than 3,000 children.
In total, the Happy Hearts Fund built or repaired dozens of schools around the world that helped nearly 12,000 children pursue an education.
As the fifth anniversary of the tsunami disaster on Dec. 26 approaches, Petra said she wants to remind everyone of the lesser-known disasters, the children whose faces we don't always see and lives that were lost.
Nemcova lost her boyfriend in the tsunami when it struck Thailand. Nemcova said she did not want to talk about him because she was afraid it would open wounds for his family.
But the Happy Hearts founder did say his family is proud of the work she is doing with the foundation.
"Yes, and they're a big part every day, the support with ideas, with fundraising in many different ways. And they're very, very happy and they're proud," Nemcova said.
Nemcova said the foundation has helped her mend and give her strength.
"Often, people say, by healing others, you heal yourself," Nemcova said. She added, "Every time I think of [the children] they, they put a huge smile on my face…they just make me really happy thinking of them and thinking of their strength," Nemcova said.