INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. - Sitting at her dining room table inside her inviting Incline Village log cabin home last Saturday morning, Nancy Barrett was far removed from the frigid, rain-drenched East Coast where she worked 14- to 16-hour days less than a month ago, offering assistance to those in need in the wake of Hurricane Sandy's destructive path.
When asked to describe her three-week experience helping hundreds of Toms River, N.J., and other shore residents after the hurricane, Barrett's humble response makes it apparent why she's garnering some impressive accolades for her volunteer work with the American Red Cross.
"I think I got more out of the experience than I gave," said Barrett. "I met some great people. I saw a community really come together and take care of each other, (and) I learned a tremendous amount."
Barrett, who joined the Red Cross about two years ago after retiring, was deployed to Toms River on Oct. 28, a day before the hurricane hit the East Coast, to help with setting up an evacuation center in the Pine Belt Arena at Toms River High School North.
"Every single Red Cross volunteer makes an incredible sacrifice when they go on national assignment," said Karli Epstein, a North Shore resident and director for the American Red Cross Northern Nevada Chapter. "They have to drop everything for three weeks and travel within 24 hours of being notified."
"It was easy for me to go," Barrett said. "I'm retired, so it wasn't a hardship for me to go. You just get on a plane and go."
When her plane landed, Epstein said Barrett "immediately" set to work, ultimately taking refuge with her fellow volunteers in the high school when the hurricane made landfall.
"We had very little visibility because we were in a protected area with no windows, and it was relatively quiet at that point because people couldn't come and go," Barrett said. "With no electricity, no television, we actually did not understand the impact of the storm until it was over."
It wasn't until several days later that she knew the extent of the damage, since electricity was down for five days and she was working long hours due to the shelter having a limited staff, a result of other volunteers being delayed from grounded flights and blocked roadways.
On a guided tour of Seaside and Seaside Heights, Barrett saw homes under 6 feet of water, the first floor of houses gone or heavily damaged by water, a boat crashed up against a house, fences with debris on them, piles of ruined possession in front yards, waterlogged cars, down power lines, uprooted trees and sand everywhere.
Despite the devastation, the residents' composure in light of losing so much impressed Barrett.
"I don't know if I could have held it together as well as many if I knew everything I owned was gone or at least thought it might be gone or seeing a long recovery," she said.
The shelter had an average population of 325 to 350 residents, whose houses were either inhabitable or had lost electricity, leaving them without heat and a way to prepare food, Barrett said.
"It wasn't the same 350," she said. "We had people come, and then once their electricity came on, they left. We had people who came to our shelter and then moved to another shelter to make room for more people, so it was a very fluid population, which made for a lot of work."
And that's not including the nearly 100 pets in the shelter and all the volunteers - local, national and international - there providing help, and overseeing the whole operation: Barrett.
As shelter manager, it was her responsibility to make sure other volunteers - those responsible for the dormitory, registration, feeding and other tasks - had the resources and information they needed, along with keeping the Red Cross and county officials informed of the shelter's goings-on.
"(It) is an incredibly difficult position and one of the most important jobs within the Red Cross," Epstein said. "I ... was able to visit Nancy at her shelter - it was clear that her team members respected her and looked to her for guidance."
Barrett said her team members helped to make her job easier. The residents of the shelter also chipped in, especially during those first few days when staff was limited, by helping with cleaning, assembling cots and feeding.
"People were trying to do anything they could to thank people for helping them," she said.
There was also a large community response with individuals and organizations offering food, clothing, services and their time.
"The reaction of the Red Cross volunteers who were working 14- to 18-hour days, the residents were phenomenal, and the community," Barrett said. "All three really came together, and we really created a village in a very short period of time."
Yet at times Barrett said she was overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.
"Managing a shelter with over 500 people is no easy task, and although this pushed Nancy much further than previous assignments, she rose to the challenge," Epstein said. "The clients, volunteers and community partners all loved Nancy, and when she was transferred to a different shelter, everyone insisted that she be the manager."
After two weeks, Toms River High School North shelter closed, since school needed to resume, so she moved to the Monmouth County Park Racetrack shelter.
Barrett said the second shelter was different from the first in that it provided more than food and a safe place to stay; it also provided guidance.
"There the mood was not initial safety," she said. "It was about 'How do we move forward?'"
And after three weeks, Barrett herself had to move on.
"In many ways it was hard to leave because you had developed such great friendships with people that you wanted to see it all through," she said. "But by the same token, those of us working, we were working very long hours for an extended period and it was pretty exhausting. So it was time to let a new shift come on."
Looking back, Barrett said she hope she was able to provide a sense of comfort and a sense of community to those impacted by the hurricane.
Epstein has no doubt that she did.
"She has the ability to be such a bright light during incredibly stressful situations," she said.
During Glamour Magazine's Women of the Year 2012 ceremony in New York City on Nov. 12, Barrett along with 19 other women who helped during Hurricane Sandy were recognized for their efforts.
"The fact that Nancy and other women were recognized as 'Heroines of Hurricane Sandy' ... shows just how much of an impact the Red Cross and Nancy had after Hurricane Sandy," Epstein said.
Barrett is also one of 16 finalists for the Governor's Points of Light Award, an annual honor that celebrates Nevada's "outstanding" volunteers and their efforts.
"Nancy embodies what volunteerism truly means," Epstein said. "She works tirelessly to support the Red Cross mission, without expecting anything in return. Her selfless acts proves that she understands the importance of the Red Cross; helping those who are more unfortunate than ourselves."
Epstein went on to say that some of Barrett's other volunteer efforts include: surveying shelter locations throughout the region in case of future disasters, working on a regional shelter and feeding plan to increase the chapter's effectiveness, and assisting in shelter efforts during three recent wildfires - two in Reno and one in Colorado.
"I truly don't know what we would do without her," Epstein said. "Not only does she care about our local community, but she has also worked tirelessly to help people across the country."
The Points of Light Award will be awarded Jan. 18 in Las Vegas.
"I don't think it's an award for me," Barrett said. "I think it's an award for all the volunteers who helped, and I happen to be - just as I was in Carnegie Hall (in New York City) - representing all the (Red Cross) volunteers who helped."