“This little girl walked up to me and said, ‘Don’t be like everyone else and not come back,’ ” Lewis, 24, tells PEOPLE. “It was this eye-opening experience. When you tell a kid you will see them soon, they believe it and expect it.”
After that day, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model committed herself to the charity – and eventually formed a deep bond with another girl that has changed both their lives for the better.
Early last year, at Project Sunshine’s Star for a Day program, Lewis met 12-year-old Nakayla Precod, who has sickle cell disease, a hereditary blood disorder, and who has been in and out of hospitals her whole life.
“The second I met her I fell in love,” Lewis says. “She was this diva in every great way possible. We started talking and had this immediate connection. Five minutes later I was painting her nails.”
Precod, now 14, immediately felt the same way.
“We have a really cool and fun relationship,” she tells PEOPLE. “She likes to surprise me and comes up with really fun activities.”
They do everything from scrapbooking photos of themselves together to decorating a backpack with rhinestones.
Precod says the thing she enjoys most about Lewis is how she makes her feel: “She gives me the best advice and she makes me forget that I’m sick. She’s like my sister.”
Precod and Lewis’s friendship is just one example of what Project Sunshine does across 175 cities in the United States and in four international locations, providing free educational, recreational and social programs to 100,000 children facing medical challenges and their families.
Joseph Weilgus, who founded the organization from his college dorm room in 1998, says that we all need help and guidance at some point in our lives – and Lewis and Precod’s friendship is profound.
“To have someone that is consistent in your life is a blessing and something that could make a huge difference for a child, especially if they’re fighting an illness,” he tells PEOPLE. “We want to create normalcy in their lives and have them imagine a life where they’re healthy.”
On Tuesday, Lewis will receive the Project Sunshine Ambassador Award at its Annual Benefit Celebration for her work at the nonprofit.
“No matter where I am in the world, I show up for Nakayla,” Lewis says. “Children are our future. We need to expose them to positivity.”