Petra Nemcova: How Access to Education Can Heal the Ravages of Natural Disasters

Special to Dispatch from Petra Nemcova, Founder and Chair, and Phil Caputo, Executive Director, Happy Hearts Fund

Last week, the Happy Hearts Fund launched the Bring Happiness Back! campaign at the United Nations to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami, in coordination with the United Nations Office for Partnerships. The campaign shines a much-needed spotlight on both the devastating negative impact that natural disasters have on children and the equally positive multiplier effect that a simple, but smart, intervention of educational resources can have on children and on a community’s reconstruction over the long-term.

The Happy Hearts Fund was created in 2006 so it is a relatively new organization but it has already distinguished itself as one of the more innovative and adaptive groups contributing to post-disaster recovery. We attribute much of our success to the Millennium Development Goal framework and the work of the United Nations in general.

Sriharjo School (Before)

MDG Two in particular – Universal Primary Education – has provided our projects and partners with vital reference points and a robust policy framework; and it has informed both our programmatic conceptualization and implementation. We have found over and over again that restoring access to education is one of the most surefire ways to revitalize children’s lives and a disaster-ravaged community. While children are at school, parents are able to focus on reconstructing their lives and return to their jobs. To date, HHF has rebuilt schools in eight countries, including, Indonesia, Thailand, Peru, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Haiti, India and Hurricane Katrina-affected areas of the United States. Globally, HHF programs benefit more than 12,000 children and 230,000 community members annually.

Our experience in the field has made us all too aware that there is a substantial gap between immediate relief (i.e. survival needs like food, water, first aid, etc) and the rebuilding process. Too often, after the TV cameras and the food pallets disappear, the ravaged infrastructure sits unrepaired, and the rebuilding can take anywhere from six to 10 years in developing countries. You can find people living in temporary shelters up to five years after a disaster and, even worse, children suffer multiyear gaps in their education. At HHF, we focus our energies intentionally on that gap, and we are working to move education and school reconstruction higher up on the list of immediate reconstruction and recovery needs.

As we assist in the school rebuilding process, we seek to add as much value as possible. HHF establishes computer labs within its schools, which enhances the quality of education for children while teaching new skills and affording better job opportunities. HHF also incubates and fosters a community-oriented business as a programmatic companion to the new schools, thereby ensuring a long-term funding stream for the maintenance and development of the school, and, by extension, the community. These community-based small enterprises are particularly critical for the project’s enduring sustainability and the community’s immediate economic reconstruction.Sriharjo School (After)

The “Bring Happiness Back!” campaign again is squarely grounded in the overarching framework of MDG Two. The mission of “Bring Happiness Back!” campaign is to help rebuild the lives of children who have been forgotten after natural disasters. The first goal is to raise $200,000 in two months starting on December 15th for the construction of six of the 40 kindergartens that were destroyed by the September 2009 earthquake in Java, Indonesia. Our staff on the ground reports that children are not getting any help with respect to restoring primary education, and we are keen to make sure that these children are not left voiceless and forgotten.

We are seeking allies, partners and support. We have seen the incredible impact that rebuilding a kindergarten can make in a child’s life and a community’s recovery, and we want to do as much as we can. Please take a moment to view the short video we have prepared to remind everyone about the power of nature and the even greater power of the human heart! For more information, please visit or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.


 The Happy Hearts Fund (HHF) empowers children in disaster- affected areas by providing access to education and technology in a sustainable way. HHF initiatives are focused on bridging the gap between emergency post-disaster relief and fully restored infrastructure. For more information, go to The images above are of the Sriharjo School, before and after reconstruction.   The image below is of Petra and Phil in front of  the school. 

The Bring Happiness Back PSA