Petra Nemcova on making "positive" history 10 years after tsunami

Founder and chair of Happy Hearts Fund, Petra Nemcova attends Glamour and Ann Taylor Celebrate International Women's Day on March 8, 2014, in New York. Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for GLAMOUR

This December marks 10 years since the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami struck, killing more than 230,000 people and sweeping away entire communities in one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history.

Model Petra Nemcova was vacationing in Thailand that day -- Dec. 26, 2004 -- with her partner, photographer Simon Atlee. He was swept away and died, while she suffered a broken pelvis and survived by clinging to a tree for eight hours.

Nemcova, 34, who has graced the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and later competed on "Dancing with the Stars," was inspired by the tragedy to create the Happy Hearts Fund, a nonprofit organization that rebuilds schools in regions struck by natural disasters.

The group is now active in seven countries and has rebuilt 85 schools, but there's an even bigger number in mind -- 100 schools by the end of this year, to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of the 2004 tsunami.

And she will raise awareness and funds for the cause at a gala Thursday night at Cipriani in New York City, where former President Bill Clinton will be honored for his work to try to ensure that children and communities are not forgotten after disasters strike. Other honorees include Haiti's President Michel Martelly and Black Eyed Peas members apl.de.ap and will.i.am.

Nemcova says the tsunami is still something she carries with her every day, but she channels it into the work she's doing with Happy Hearts Fund.

"I'm connected to in my everyday work with Happy Hearts so there's a reminder of it, but instead of thinking about it from a negative standpoint, I am thinking about it from a standpoint of positivity -- what I can do by myself, what we can do all of us together to create something positive," she told CBS News. "From the beginning, 10 years ago, I knew that if you can spend one hour being sad and focusing on the negative, you're not going to create anything. But if you spend that same hour trying to find solutions you can actually change something."

Details Nemcova recalls from that day in 2004 are harrowing -- not having any warning, people running to try and save themselves, others (herself included) drowning and "being harmed in a very bad way." She adds, "One of the worst things through the whole experience, the most painful one was not the pain of broken bone, or the drowning -- it was the pain of hearing children screaming for help... and the pain of not being able to help them."

She didn't have a choice in what happened that day, she says, but she does now. "When I could walk again and when I recovered, after that I had a choice. Every day I have a choice to help children who are in desperate need. It was one of the most difficult things, not having a choice. And when I went back to Thailand, that day I had a choice and a mission for the past 10 years."

It was very clear to her that she wanted to direct her efforts to helping children and rebuilding schools. "Seeing what we've seen especially in more rural areas -- and other areas, too -- school is the center of the community," she explains. "It serves as so much more than a school - it's a shelter, community center, it's a symbol of hope, it's a symbol of children's futures.

Happy Hearts Fund comes in after emergency responders have finished, when global attention on the disaster aftermath wanes and it can still take years for schools and communities to be rebuilt. Nemcova saw that gap with her own eyes when visiting Thailand and the other countries her group has worked with.

Visiting the countries where Happy Hearts Fund works has "touched my heart," Nemcova says. "It's great to see the impact the schools have on the community level. Going to school openings and when I see the joy in the communities being so touched, I had a hard time keeping my tears back -- but they're tears of joy. It's really priceless. I celebrate the openings of schools but I keep in mind there's so many children that need help."

People who want to help can find out ways to contribute at the Happy Hearts Fund website. The group is also partnering with Sports Illustrated to hold a contest where donors can win a trip to the set of next year's Swimsuit Issue photoshoot.

Through her organization and its work, Nemcova wants to make an impact -- just like the event 10 years ago that changed her life and inspired her crusade.

"The goal is to rebuild 100 schools and create a mark in history as the tsunami did," she says. "But a positive mark."

  • Jessica Derschowitz

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