Supermodel Humanitarian Petra Nemcova to Rebuild Schools in Haiti
By Jo Piazza Posted Oct 28th 2010 03:00PM
The only thing that brought news crews back was a cholera outbreak.
In the gap period between the earthquake and when serious rebuilding began, PopEater traveled to Haiti with supermodel-turned-serious humanitarian (does that make her a super human?) Petra Nemcova to scout locations and possible partnerships for her Happy Hearts Fund to rebuild schools that were affected by the quake.
Rebuilding after a disaster is something Nemcova holds close to her heart. Happy Hearts was founded after Petra survived the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami. Her fiance, photographer Simon Atlee, drowned, but Petra survived by holding onto a palm tree until rescuers arrived.
For the past five years, Happy Hearts has worked to rebuild schools in areas affected by natural disaster. What's obvious from being on the ground with Nemcova is that the girl -- who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2004 -- has grown into a serious humanitarian. If that wasn't made clear by the year the model spent studying executive education at Cambridge (she just recently moved back to New York), it is abundantly obvious when sitting in Happy Hearts' planning meetings as she asks, "Just one more question," then proceeds to ask thirty. And they're always the questions that needed to be asked.
While traveling with Petra and Happy Hearts Executive Director Phil Caputo, we posed some questions about the Fund's plans in Haiti.
Petra Nemcova in Haiti
Petra Nemcova poses with children in Haiti.
How was Haiti different this time that you visited?
Phil: We were in Haiti in 2007 for the opening of our computer lab at the primary and secondary school Lycée Jacques 1Er in Croix-des-Bouquets. That trip was an eye opening experience, which allowed us to see some of the challenges Haitians were facing. This recent trip was again emotional because of the aftermath of the earthquake, but we left having gained a greater understanding of the people, needs and possibilities.
Were the people different?
Petra: Haitians have a beautiful spirit and remarkable resilience, which the recent cholera outbreak is testing yet again. The people we met and spoke with seemed cautiously optimistic about their future and the future of their country and beneath the strong and proud exterior, we sensed the need for tangible progress to keep hope alive.
Many were doing their part to rebuild their lives and establish day-to-day normalcy for themselves and their children. What we saw in Haiti is similar to what we see in so many countries nine-plus months after a natural disaster: first responders beginning to extract themselves and the need for a sustained response that provides the opportunity to engage, involve and empower.
Were the children different?
Phil: We visited a temporary school on what was the first day back for the children since the earthquake. The children were dressed in their best clothes, celebrating the opportunity to learn and be with friends. They were happy and, like the adults, remaining positive about the future. Also like the adults, the children seemed to carry an underlying concern about what might happen next. It was clear the trauma of the earthquake remains present and has deeply affected these strong children. We could see and feel the urgency for these children to have a safe and happy place to learn.
Was there more or less hope?
Petra: Our expectation was to see more hope, and after speaking with many people, they shared their perception that in order to restore hope they need to start seeing results in the country.
What are your goals for rebuilding in Haiti?
Phil: Happy Hearts Fund builds and rebuilds schools after natural disasters, including a computer lab within each school and establishing a business the revenues of which sustain the school. To achieve this, we seek and form partnerships in both the private and public sectors, ensuring effectiveness of both process and results.
Our goal in Haiti is to replicate the sustainable school model and bring happiness back to as many Haitian children as possible.
What did you see on the ground that struck you the most?
Petra: We were surprised by the amount of activity on the street. Seeing the local trade and day-to-day life taking place set against the endless miles of rubble, collapsed buildings and lack of any open space -- parks are now tent cities -- was another reminder of the resiliency of Haitian people and need for a sustained response.
We saw and met with organizations that started with a simple desire to help and have organically grown into something akin to small cities. We saw large organizations expanding their reach and small groups focusing on their respective missions. Ultimately, what struck us the most was how everyone was doing their part and it left us with the feeling that when taken collectively hope can be restored.
What will be the most difficult thing about moving forward in country in Haiti?
Phil: The most important thing will be partnerships. Solutions will only be limited by the creativity of collaborations that are formed to provide them.
What does Haiti most need now?
Phil: A commitment by all sectors for a sustained response in conjunction with clear plans that have engaged and involved the community, can be easily understood and every inch of the results seen as well as measured.
What is the most rewarding thing about building a school in an area affected by a natural disaster?
Petra: Seeing and understanding the incredible impact and positive ripple effect on the lives of children, their families and communities while knowing it will save this and future generations.
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