Model Petra Nemcova was enjoying a fairytale holiday at a beachfront villa in Thailand with her boyfriend, British photographer Simon Atlee, not knowing it would be the last time they would be together.
On December 26, 2004, a powerful earthquake set off a devastating tsunami across the Indian Ocean, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 230,000 people.
Nemcova, then 25, held on to the top of a palm tree for eight hours as the tsunami destroyed everything in its path. Nemcova’s pelvis shattered in four places and she nearly drowned multiple times as she heard the screams of children begging for help suddenly go silent. Atlee yelled her name as he attempted to cling on. He then vanished.
His body wouldn’t be found until months later.
The Czech beauty will certainly never forget the day she lost her great love and nearly her life, but she refuses to run away from her past. In fact, after Nemcova was able to walk again, she was compelled to launch the Happy Hearts Foundation in 2006, a nonprofit organization that aims to rebuild safe, resilient schools for children after a natural disaster.
Earlier this year, Nemcova participated in BTIG’s Charity Day in New York City where she served as a guest stock trader and took calls on the global trading floor to help raise funds.
She did it all with a smile on her face.
Nemcova told Fox News that it’s the kindness of strangers, like the Thai man who found her and risked being swept away just to save her life and many others, not knowing the fate of his own loved ones, that has kept her motivated to live.
“So many people around the world have unbelievable compassion and unconditional love,” said Nemcova. “They inspired me every day. Unbelievable kindness and compassion inspires me… People who are willing to face whatever challenges are out there. That’s the beauty of the human spirit. The beauty of compassionate souls? That’s what inspires me.”
Nemcova said there isn’t enough awareness on what a community can do after a natural disaster strikes. She believes schools will not only provide emotional healing for children, but will also deliver job opportunities for those in need, resulting in an economic boost, as well as encouraging much-needed help.
“There’s a big gap there between a natural disaster warning and its aftermath,” she said. “And when first responders leave, many children can wait up to six, eight years to have a safe school… That’s why we developed Smart Response, which helps to address those immediate and long-term needs of communities impacted by natural disasters.
"We want to build safe schools for children, but we also want to hear the needs of the community and try to help as much as possible. If you just do first response and don’t take any time to rebuild long-term for the community, it’s never going to heal properly… There’s first response, but there needs to be rebuilding long-term. That’s our goal."
Nemcova is aware first responders are crucial in delivering clean water, medicine and other supplies immediately after a natural disaster. However, she added long-term revitalization is just as important to ensure healing, all while empowering people to help support their community.
And Nemcova has zero plans to ever give up on those who can use some support, wherever they are.
“Every day or every two days, I’m in a different country, different city,” said Nemcova. “I’m very busy, but everything is meaningful. Because with each trip, I am able to create and co-create with others and help provide opportunities for children to have a better, brighter future. That’s what keeps me going.
"My friends always say, ‘you’re crazy’ or ‘how can you travel like this?’ But just knowing that you are making a difference, that you’re able to uplift the lives of children and their whole families? That gives you energy to go on.”
As for the future, Nemcova hasn’t given up on the possibility of finding love again or having a family.
“One day, I would love to have children of my own,” said Nemcova. “So we’ll see. I’ll accept whatever plan God has for me. If it’s meant to happen, it will happen at the right time. But I will leave it to God and the universe to decide when is the right time.”
But these days, Nemcova is busy helping the growing family she has developed around the world through her humanitarian work.
“I definitely would love [children of my own],” she said. “For now, I have almost 100,000 of them.”