Czech supermodel Petra Nemcova was among the many caught in the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, one of the deadliest natural disasters in history.
Nemcova was staying at a resort in Thailand with her fiance Simon Atlee. When the tsunami hit, Atlee drowned and Nemcova was saved by holding on to a palm tree for several hours. Gravely injured, she spent weeks in hospital, but has since made a full recovery.
Affected by what she had been through, Nemcova returned to Thailand a few months later. What she saw made her concerned for the fates of the countless families who remained homeless and were trying to piece their lives back together. She felt most for the children, robbed of education. That’s how Happy Hearts Fund was born.
Inaugurated by Nemcova in 2005, the nongovernmental organization based in New York is dedicated to rebuilding schools and kindergartens in areas affected by natural disasters.
Since its establishment, HHF has built dozens of schools in 14 countries and is currently active in seven countries, including Thailand, Chile, Haiti and Peru.
Indonesia, however, is the single biggest beneficiary, which is why HHF opened its first office outside the United States in Jakarta earlier this year.
“On Aug. 24, we are holding a big fund-raiser at the Four Seasons Hotel in Jakarta to launch our branch in Indonesia, and to fund-raise for 10 schools to be built in Indonesia this year,” said Sylvia Beiwinkler, the new chief executive of HHF Indonesia.
“Petra will also be attending the event and on Aug. 26, she will be traveling to Pangalengan, Bandung, to officially open the latest HHF school.”
Education is key to a nation’s prosperity, helping people break the bonds of poverty and contribute to overall economic growth, Beiwinkler added.
This is a core belief of HHF, which always collaborates with local partner organizations. In Indonesia, its key partner is Manusia Untuk Masyarakat (Humanity for Community).
Together, HHF and MUM have focused on building earthquake-resilient schools in and around Bandung and Yogyakarta. Both suffered heavy earthquakes in the past decade, leaving thousands of people injured and displaced.
“After the earthquake in Bandung, there was another one in Padang, which led to many NGOs moving on to help out there, and we felt like Bandung and Yogyakarta were forgotten about a little bit too fast, although there was still a lot that needed to be done. That’s why we stayed there and didn’t go to Padang or Aceh,” Beiwinkler said.
Thanks to HHF’s efforts, 36 schools have been rebuilt in Yogyakarta, 16 in Bandung, and two in Bali, directly helping over 3,500 children get back into the classroom to study.
“We are not providing emergency relief, but rather work during the ‘gap period’ that follows and other efforts have slowed down already,” she added. “That is usually a few months after a natural disaster happened, and then we are there long term to ensure that we will make a lasting impact.”
Usually, the “gap period” between immediate first response and recovery lasts from two to 10 years.
But HHF is aware that getting a back school up and running involves more than just repairing the physical infrastructure. It also provides equipment including desks, chairs, blackboards and books, and, in kindergartens, some toys. Each school also gets a computer lab.
“This is actually something we want to focus on in the future, to create a better collaboration between local schools, or maybe create a program for which a university can ‘adopt’ a school and, for example, help provide used books so the children have better learning material,” Beiwinkler said.
It takes around three months for HHF to reconstruct a school, a process during which the organization involves the local community. In the end, it is not only the children who benefit from the efforts, but also their parents and community members who can put their focus on rebuilding their lives while the kids are in school.
“Our local partner organization MUM makes sure that even after the schools are reopened, to upkeep the maintenance,” Beiwinkler explained. “We still stay involved until they are self-sufficient.”
It’s not an easy task, she added, as funds are often lacking.
“Something always needs to be done, as is usually the case with schools. After all, these are kids, they play, they break something, it happens just like that and is perfectly normal,” Beiwinkler said.
She added that, depending on the location and premises of the schools, HHF in some cases also provided small gardens where children and teachers could plant vegetables together.
“Sometimes, the families are so poor that the children come to school without having had breakfast first,” Beiwinkler said. “So it would be good if they could prepare something at school themselves, with vegetables they have grown in their own gardens.”
In the future, HHF wants to branch out and help reconstruct schools in more remote areas, particularly in eastern Indonesia.
“There are also natural disasters in Sumba [in East Nusa Tenggara], for example, but they are not significant enough to make it to the news,” Beiwinkler said.
“Until now, helping rebuild schools in remote areas was a big challenge, both financially and logistically. But with the opening of the new HHF branch in Indonesia, we hope we can tackle this.”
HHF has ambitious plans for the coming years. “We will try to gradually increase the number of schools,” Beiwinkler said. “This year, we are aiming for 10, and next year, we can hopefully double the number.”