Sept. 11, 2020 | By Kristen Richards | Illustration by Bibi Powers

After the sun had set in Rockport, Texas, the metal scraps from collapsed houses glinted in white moonlight and wet, rotting boards leaned against wrought-iron fences in the darkness. Everything was still, except for a Confederate flag drifting in the wind.

I was a member of AmeriCorps NCCC during my gap year, a government program dedicated to national and community service. After completing our training in Denver, my team and I travelled to a tiny coastal town — Rockport, Texas — to work with a non-profit organization called All Hands and Hearts.

All Hands and Hearts has programs all over the world — everywhere from Nepal to Australia to Peru, to, of course, Texas. They work on disaster relief projects — the Rockport, Texas program focuses on repairing homes destroyed by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Most of the families we worked for had been living in damaged homes for almost two years, and our job was to remove mold, put down new flooring, paint, muck, and gut entire houses, and put up drywall. My team and I stayed at the All Hands and Hearts base for six weeks in the fall of 2019, commuting across town to different worksites every day and often approaching houses with hazmat suits and respirator masks so as to not inhale mold.

It was while working with All Hands and Hearts that I learned the importance of compassion and began to understand that regardless of political views, everyone deserves a safe house to live in. 

When I saw my first Confederate flag I was running along the beach, barefoot, and I saw the flag hanging from the porch of a broken-down house. The next day, at work, we began to muck and gut the house — essentially remove all the ruined materials — and as we dragged the furniture out, I came across a “TRUMP 2020” sign leaning against one of the armchairs. Later that day, we laid another Confederate flag out in the yard. I wanted to sneak it into the trash pile, but my teammates insisted on keeping it under the tarp with the rest of the family’s belongings.

I was outraged: how could this family support the very man who ignored their need for government assistance in home repair? The fancy resorts along the Rockport beach had been fully repaired within weeks of the hurricane — why was their home any different?

Living most of my life in uber-liberal Massachusetts, I had never worked for someone with such different beliefs than me. The majority of my classmates at school echoed my own liberal opinions, and there was barely any opportunity to converse with highly conservative students. AmeriCorps NCCC, as a government organization, prohibited talking about politics, especially to homeowners, and I was frustrated to never have the chance to ask the woman we worked for, “Why?”

Shortly before we completed our repair of that house — the one whose Trump sign was now stapled to the fence — I was sweeping bits of drywall into a pile, and the woman who owned the home came to thank me for the work we were doing.

That afternoon, while we waited outside for the van, I looked up at the house, no longer spouting mold and broken floorboards, and saw the woman — and her husband and son who also lived in the house  — with a new sense of compassion. I knew we disagreed about politics, despite never having a conversation about it (thanks, AmeriCorps), but there was something so much more important: safety.

Everyone deserves a safe house. If I had the chance, I wouldn’t ask the woman why she supported Trump: I would ask the government why they left their citizens living in ruined homes for over two years.

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