One such holiday hero, 20-year Pacific Beach resident Karla Stuart, received “the call” from the American Red Cross on Nov. 26 to help out in a disaster ridden coastline nearly 3,000 miles away after superstorm Sandy. By sunrise on Nov. 27, Stuart was jetting off to the devastated areas of New York to help rebuild a community rocked by Sandy.
Stuart worked tirelessly — but without complaint — 13 hours a day for three weeks at a shelter in Long Island, a facility for those displaced from their homes in Long Beach and Breezy Point Beach.
“They already had so little and now have lost everything,” she said. “Most don’t have a lot of family and friends they can rely on, yet they always have time for a smile and to express their gratitude. Every minute I am here reminds me that I am so lucky — and that we all are — for the relationships we have and that we have family and friends we can count on.”
Stuart was inspired to get involved with the Red Cross after the San Diego wildfires five years ago. She immersed herself in specialized training at the local chapter office and became a member of the National Disaster Relief Team, which consists of volunteers who commit to long-term disaster relief efforts at the drop of a hat.
Tasks can range from office assistance and warehouse restocking to provision of mass care, family service or mental health specialties.
“The Red Cross does a great job of training their volunteers,” Stuart said. “They have very specific classes we all need to go through to be prepared when we get deployed. About the time I was finishing up my training, Hurricane Ike hit Texas. I was deployed in various parts of Texas for three weeks to help out.”
On the local level, Stuart also took part in a disaster action team, which responds to local disaster scenes like house fires.
“The Red Cross provides shelter, food, health and mental-health services to help families — and sometimes entire communities —get back on their feet. If a fire happens here in San Diego in the middle of the night, Red Cross is there to comfort those affected,” she said. “I had no idea the reach of all the different Red Cross programs until I started volunteering with them.”
Her efforts in New York were shared with volunteers from all over the world, including 40 from the local San Diego chapter. At times, the long hours and minimal living quarters — which consisted of a simple cot for sleeping and two showers and three bathroom stalls shared by 100 other volunteers — could be both challenging and enlightening, she said.
“Being away from home on these deployments can be pretty tough,” Stuart said. “Three weeks or more of sleeping on a cot, little sleep and not having the comforts of home can be taxing, but in the end, I have a home to go home to and that puts it all into perspective.
“We work really hard while on deployment,” she said. “There is never a moment in the day where someone doesn’t need something. We are essentially running a hotel out of a gymnasium for hundreds of people.”
Stuart and other volunteers at the shelter contended with everything from sickness prevention in a makeshift infirmary to offering necessary foodstuffs, blankets and water to residents in the hardest-hit areas.
“It really hit close to home because the areas reminded me so much of South Mission Beach,” said Stuart. “Imagine pretty much every house in South Mission Beach being knocked off its foundation, over 100 homes burned to the ground and mounds of sand covering everything. When you see the damage, you realize it is going to be years until things get back to any reasonable sense of normality.”
Despite the taxing physical and emotional challenges of witnessing such devastation, Stuart said giving back to the community is an integral part of her life and one she cannot see herself without.
“If you can help the people around you, you should,” she said. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but then again, it is the times in life when you are truly challenged that you learn from and remember the most.”
Stuart and her husband, Mark, also invest in San Diego’s youth through the Mark and Karla Stuart Family Scholarship fund for graduating seniors at Mission Bay High School.
The duo — both Realtors at La Jolla’s Prudential California Realty — also give back through The Charitable Foundation, the grant-giving arm of Prudential, which is chaired by Mark. The agents give a portion of their closed transactions to the foundation for its charitable works.