"I saw all the suffering going on and people living without food, electricity, water," she tells PEOPLE, "and I just thought, I could be helpful"
When Luann de Lesseps heard about the wave of historic natural disasters decimating Texas, Florida and now Puerto Rico, she decided to leave her glamorous New York life behind and get her boots on the ground, signing up with the American Red Cross as an emergency services volunteer.
“I saw all the suffering going on and people living without food, electricity, water,” she tells PEOPLE, “and I just thought, I could be helpful.”
The Real Housewives of New York City star was deployed to the Florida Keys, where she’s been working tirelessly for the past week, paired with veteran disaster Donna Morrissey to deliver meals to the victims of Hurricane Irma.
Speaking to PEOPLE from the Keys, she describes traveling along dirt roads in one of the Red Cross’ over 120 emergency vehicles, handing out hot food to families crammed in tents, trailers and rundown houses — one with a boat toppled over its roof.
“My heart was shattered by all the conditions that people are facing here. And you don’t realize that until you’re actually on the ground,” she says.
“It was life-changing. Life-changing for me to be able to be there and help,” she adds. “I speak a little Spanish, so some of them were Latino communities, so that came in handy. It was a long day filled with dust and heat and human suffering, but it was just life-changing to see what’s happening. And it’s unbelievable to see that it’s still going on, and it’s going to take a while before they rebuild and get theirselves back to living a normal life.”
(Her “normal” has also changed drastically: While in Florida, she learned her divorce from Tom D’Agostino is close to being finalized, telling PEOPLE, “It’s sad for me, but I’m putting myself to work, keeping myself busy, and trying to move past it and move on to the next chapter of my life.”)
On social media, de Lesseps is imploring her fans to do anything they can to help, from applying to join her in Florida to sending supplies or money. (15,000 people have already volunteered via the Red Cross’ efforts in multiple disaster zones.)
Morrissey —a Red Cross spokesperson who has aided relief efforts in the wake of hurricanes and tragedies like the Newton and Pulse shootings for 14 years — said de Lesseps’ multilingual skills are integral to their efforts.
“It’s raw, it’s real, and Luann has been on the ground. She is here as a humanitarian, and I’ve seen that as her disaster partner,” she tells PEOPLE. “She has enabled us to go into neighborhoods and speak to people who deserve help and communicate with them in a way that they understand.”
“I think it’s great what Bethenny is doing,” she says. “I think it’s awesome, and I think we all need to step up.”
De Lesseps is also a trained nurse and intends to continue volunteering with the Red Cross wherever she is needed, adding herself to the stand-by list for Puerto Rico.
WATCH: Luann de Lesseps Finalizes Divorce from Tom D’Agostino
“She connects with people, she’s a hard worker, she’s resourceful, she’s compassionate, and quite frankly, she’s willing to do whatever is thrown at her in the midst of the disaster,” Morrissey says. “And we’re looking forward to having her for the long haul.”
“She’s definitely a Red Crosser,” she adds. “I can tell you that.”
To volunteer with the American Red Cross, visit www.redcross.org.