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Nate Berkus: Tsunami was 'eye-opening experience'

November 29, 2011 -- Updated 2143 GMT (0543 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Designer Nate Berkus survived the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, but his partner did not
  • Berkus credits the Red Cross for helping him get through the disaster
  • Berkus: It's the little things that matter in emergencies, such as flip-flops and money to call home

Editor's note: Voting is under way for the 2011 CNN Hero of the Year. The winner will be announced at "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute," which airs live December 11. See the Top 10 CNN Heroes of 2011 and cast your vote at CNNHeroes.com.

(CNN) -- Designer and TV host Nate Berkus is a member of the American Red Cross Celebrity Cabinet, which helps to highlight the organization's initiatives and response efforts.

Founded in 1881, the American Red Cross is part of a worldwide movement that offers humanitarian care to victims of war and natural disasters.

Berkus recently spoke with CNN's Allie Torgan about his personal connection to the Red Cross and how he is giving back. Below are excerpts from that interview.

Allie Torgan: Why are you involved with the Red Cross?

Nate Berkus: I have a very personal connection to the Red Cross because when I survived the tsunami -- the Indian Ocean tsunami, which was seven years ago now -- the Swiss Red Cross was the first sign of help that I saw with my own eyes.

The sad part for me was that my partner, who I was traveling with to a tiny surfing village in Sri Lanka, didn't survive ... like many, many other people. And it was really an eye-opening experience for me ... and a soul-opening experience for me because I think we really don't know who we are until we don't have the resources that we need.

Torgan: How did that experience affect you?

Berkus: For me, having survived a natural disaster of that magnitude, there are things that happen that you don't even think about.

Sometimes you just need a pair of flip-flops so that your feet aren't cut as you're walking around in the debris. Sometimes you need the equivalent of $5 in foreign currency to make a phone call to tell the people that love you you're OK or that somebody you love is not OK. And sometimes you need somebody just to give you a pencil and a piece of paper so that you can write down important details ... things that are flying through your mind like your passport number.

I went through a very long period of grief and also sort of re-acclimating myself to what the reality of my life was.

Torgan: What is your role as a member of the Celebrity Cabinet?

Berkus: The main goal for me is to raise awareness of what the Red Cross does. I think especially at this time of the year, we all have so many holiday traditions. ... And if one of those traditions as families could be to volunteer or donate blood to the Red Cross as part of everything that we take for granted in this season, it would be really amazing.

That kind of thinking is what being on the Celebrity Cabinet is all about. And obviously with the visibility that I'm lucky enough to have -- having a daily talk show and being able to meet people all across the country -- it's a way for me to give back to an organization that gave me something when I didn't have anything.

Torgan: Why are you involved in the CNN Heroes campaign?

Berkus: I think the Heroes campaign is really great because it highlights everyday people that we relate to, and it brings them to a place where they're getting recognition.

But even as you're watching, you know that the recognition is not what they are after. What they're after was the deed that they chose to do.

There's so much on TV ... so much passive, yucky stuff that just fills our brain with things that don't inspire us at all. And to watch somebody doing something for somebody else -- completely selflessly, having no idea that they would be chosen by CNN to be a Hero -- is something that's worthwhile for everyone to watch.

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