Nina and Doug’s House in Austin Hills, Texas
NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2021 FINALIST
Welcoming the stranger. Into your home. For six days. An act of generosity and kindness that should be an example to all.
Chelsea Timmons was going through a year of transition: She quit her teaching career to deal with mental health issues and then found herself struggling as the world locked down and her money dried up. In January 2021, when her boyfriend decided to cheer her up with a road trip to New Orleans, it ended in disaster. They broke up and Timmons got COVID.
“Hands down, the most awkward car ride home of my life,” Timmons wrote when she submitted her nomination for Nicest Places in America.
She recovered and kept on doing what she had been doing for months to get by: tutoring students, baking cakes, delivering groceries. On weekends she worked as a delivery driver for Favor, an Austin-based startup. Timmons lives in Houston, but the more lucrative trips are in Austin, so Friday mornings she would gas her car up and make the 160-mile drive.
“I would stay there Friday and Saturday night,” Timmons says, adding that she sometimes slept in her car to save money.
One Saturday in February, doing deliveries, Timmons noticed lines at gas stations and panic in the air. The Texas freeze was coming, so she decided to cut her weekend short, asking a girlfriend via text message if she should do just one last delivery. “Girl, make your money!” her friend replied.
When she pulled up to Nina Richardson and Doug Condon’s house with a car full of groceries, she lost control on their steep, icy driveway, skidding into flower beds and a small tree. When she couldn’t move the car, and no tow trucks would respond, the couple invited her in to warm up and eventually offered to let her stay the night.
“I always say, nobody would have put me out that first night,” Timmons says. “But nobody else would have put me up for six days.”
“Anybody would do the same thing,” Richardson says later.
The couple had plenty of room, including a guest bedroom with its own bath. But what put Timmons at ease was the gracious way the pair brought her into the life of their home. They ate dinner together the first night and got to know each other. The next morning, when Doug made coffee, he included enough for her. Same when Nina made lunch. Soon they had their routine: by day, the three worked from their respective rooms and devices; each evening, they came together to share meals and conversation. Timmons even baked a cake with a recipe Richardson found.
What had started out as awkward and stressful for Timmons became “a calming experience,” she says. “They were so open. So warm.”
Condon and Richardson are not the only Texans who opened their hearts and homes during those frigid days. From across the state and the region, readers sent ust tales of pluck and kindness:
– In Crystal Falls, a subdivision near Dallas, when days went by without plows, stranded residents banded together. “My husband organized a small crew to meet this morning and dig out the road,” reported resident Jamie Norman. “What started as five or six people turned into more than 20.”
– At Goodfellow Air Force Base near Austin, officers cut firewood to deliver to enlisted personnel living in town. “Didn’t matter if you were an Airman, Sailor, Marine, Guardian or Soldier. Together, we made sure everyone associated with this base was taken care of,” says Lt. Col. Michael McCourt.
– Across Texas, squads of ATV drivers and four-wheel enthusiasts like Chance Greathouse spent a memorable night pulling stalled cars out of the snow. “I look at America as one big community,” says Greathouse, from the tiny East Texas town of Mings Chapel. “We don’t treat each other like that a lot of times, but I’d like to see small town Texas be a good example.”
– Houses of worship across the state opened their doors to those who needed help. One Houston synagogue had over 5,000 vaccine doses that were about to expire when the freeze hit, so members spent all night driving around to deliver them to needy residents. “It’s not every day that you can say you spent three, four hours saving people’s lives,” says Rabbi Barry Gelman later. “This was just one of the most exhilarating days of my life.”
Back in Austin Hills, Doug Condon and Nina Richardson remain somewhat surprised by the attention their story has garnered. The couple raised five children and have long experience with houseguests; Timmons was just one of many young people who have enjoyed their easy hospitality.
“We’ve had tons of people coming and going. That’s what we do,” says Richardson.
But to Timmons, the generosity she found at Nina and Doug’s was new, and left her with a lesson for a lifetime. She remains in touch with the couple, and even brought her parents for a visit. “The whole thing blew my mind,” she says. “It helped me let my guard down. To be more open. You never know what someone is going through.”
I would like to nominate the home of Nina Richardson and Doug Condon as the absolute nicest place in America. Since I can’t give away their address, I will just nominate the city of Austin, Texas in general. Before I get into the details of their extraordinary act of kindness, I have to set the scene a bit. I have to discuss the state of the nation leading up to this event and the state of my life before the day I met them. Both are very relevant aspects that amplify the gravity of what they did. Bear with me as I paint this picture to the best of my ability.
The year 2020 was not a kind year for many people across the country. A pandemic shook the world and social unrest rocked the nation. The year was a proverbial earthquake, sending waves of destruction that affected the healthcare system, the economy, education, and set a new standard for social norms. The year 2021 was supposed to be a new year and with a new beginning but for many, it has just been filled with aftershocks.
The world is still adjusting to the “new normal” as we cope with the ever-changing COVID protocols. “Stay home and stay safe,” was the mantra that became a new way of life. It was designed to save lives but turned out to have a plethora of unforeseen perks. Yoga pants were now acceptable to wear to work. Traffic was now an issue of the past. A midday nap, during your lunch break in your own bed, was now a very viable option. Laws in Texas changed to allow alcoholic beverages to be delivered to your front door! (Hands down, the absolute best thing to come out of 2020.) Work from home became the new normal. “Curbside” and “contact-free” became marketing buzzwords. Zoom meetings, and drive-by parties became standard practice. We adapted quickly. All seemed well.
Little by little, everyone retreated deeper and deeper into their private worlds. With remote work/school, and a vast array of delivery options, people had no reason to leave their homes. In theory, it sounds like a dream, but over time, many people forgot how to interact with others. The person next door was no longer considered a neighbor. Instead they became a possible point of exposure. Every greeting for over a year was met with hesitation and caution. Embracing a loved one was no longer socially acceptable. I went an ENTIRE YEAR without hugging my grandmother. It was a feeling I never knew I would miss so much. (Hugs. Hands down the best thing to make a comeback in 2021.) People became secluded from the world and dove into social media, where they could cherry-pick the content presented to them. Algorithms doubled down on preferred content and just like that, a perfect bubble was created. Misinformation spread like wildfire. Opinions and thoughts went unchallenged and it drove people deeper into their beliefs. The left went further left, the right went further right, and people forgot what it was to meet in the middle.
In 2020, I made a very difficult decision to step away from my teaching career. I was dealing with severe mental health issues and needed to take time away and evaluate my life. The timing just so happened to line up with the initial COVID lock down. As I was navigating the seas of unemployment, a wave of many others soon joined me. I live in Houston, Texas, where the oil and gas industry is very prominent in the city. Oil and gas companies took a major hit at the beginning of the pandemic. Many companies had massive layoffs. Others had hiring freezes as they tried to figure out how to make remote work functional. Needless to say, it made it difficult to find a steady employment at the time. I had to draw on all my skills and assets to make ends meet. I drew on my passion for baking, and sold homemade baked goods. I drew on my teaching skills and started tutoring students that struggled with remote learning. I drew on the fact that I had a car and gas was cheap and I started to work for various delivery services.
As everyone started to lock themselves inside, I started to venture out more for work, delivering for a Texas-based company named Favor. They originally started in Austin and they had a strong foothold on the delivery market there. They had very lucrative promotions every weekend that were three times more profitable than Houston. I knew a few other drivers that made the trek to the capital on the weekend and they all said it was worth it. So I started to do the same. Friday mornings I would hop in I-10, fuel up at Buc-ee’s, and make the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Austin. I would stay there Friday and Saturday night and come home on Sunday. The market was open from 7 a.m. until midnight and I was clocked in for every minute of it. I would wake up early and place myself at the morning hot spots so I got the first morning orders. I would stay out on the road after midnight to grab those scraggly orders that were placed at 11:59 p.m.. I usually was out until about 1:30 a.m. and I’d wake up at 6 a.m. to do it again the next day.
Temporary job placements dried up and those weekend trips paid a majority of my bills. Money was tight. To be fully honest, some nights I would forgo a motel and just sleep in my car to make sure I had the money to cover my bills. In the fall it wasn’t bad at all. Winter months were a bit more uncomfortable. But as any native Texan would do, I put on an extra pair of socks, and a second hoodie. I made it work.
January 2021, new year, new beginnings. More places started to open up. People began to feel safe venturing out of their homes. My birthday is in January, but I wasn’t in the celebrating mood. I was essentially unemployed and just barely making it. I was still coping with getting my anxiety and depression under control. I just wanted to lay in my bed and ignore the fact that another year had passed. My boyfriend at the time had other plans. He decided to take me on an impromptu trip to New Orleans, just a five hour drive from Houston. It started out well—we went to a few museums and ate some amazing local cuisine. The last day took a turn. It ended in a huge fight and we ended up breaking up. (Hands down, the most awkward car ride home of my life.) To make matters WORSE, on the way home I started to feel fatigue and started having body aches. You guessed it—I got COVID while on vacation for my birthday.
I layed in bed sick, regretting every life decision made. My symptoms were mild, but enough to keep me down. I couldn’t make money from any of the sources of income that I had come to rely on. Delivery was out of the question. I had to cancel baking orders and pulled my upcoming Valentine’s cupcake sale. I drew comfort in the fact that the company had a relief program for workers that contracted COVID. I submitted my claim application and played the waiting game.
The weeks passed, symptoms subsided, and I was cleared by the doctor to return to normal activities. I contacted the delivery company to have my account reactivated so I could return to work. I also inquired about the status of my claim. Bills were stacking up, notices in the mail turned from white to pink. I had to keep my anxiety in check. I repeated daily to myself “Everything’s gonna be alright, everything’s gonna be OK” to the tune of the song by Sweetbox. I just knew the claim was coming and that I would soon be able to pay my bills. I waited anxiously to hear back and find out the details of the payment. My heart sank when they said I did not qualify for the relief payment. It sat like a brick in the bottom of my gut as I tried to figure how I was going to be able to pay this backlog of bills. I had just barely begun to catch up on them and now this. My heart jumped back up and began to pound on my chest as if it were trying to escape.
They told me my account would be reactivated but I would not be getting any relief funds. I asked for the decision to be reviewed as I was positive that I had met all the requirements. They said they would get back to me. I was so stressed to the max. I had to get back on the road and start working again. It was Valentine’s day weekend. I had canceled all baking orders for the holiday just in precaution. But I figured I could count on flower deliveries for some quick money. Almost immediately after reading my denial email, I had started packing a bag to go to Austin. Socks, extra socks, jacket, hoodie, extra hoodie, and all the long sleeve shirts that I owned. I checked the weather. I saw every headline discussing this freak winter storm headed our way. The thought of staying home never crossed my mind. My only thoughts were about my power being cut off, my car being repossessed, or coming home to an eviction notice. I had driven in a few inches of snow a few weeks prior in Austin. I imagined it would be the same (hands down, the greatest underestimation I have ever made). I grabbed some extra blankets because I knew this would be a weekend where a hotel wouldn’t be an option.
I got to Austin and got to work. Friday was a typical work day. I tripled up my shirts, and doubled up my hoodies under my jacket and got moving. That night was restless. Between the sub-freezing temperatures and my nightmares of returning home to an eviction notice, I couldn’t sleep.
Saturday morning: coffee, shot of espresso, and back to work. I started to notice some changes. I went to get gas. The first station I went to was completely out. The attendant told me that the supply truck was delayed by weather and couldn’t make it into town (first warning sign). I started getting an influx of grocery orders as people were preparing for the storm (second sign). While doing my grocery runs, I noticed that the stores were low on a variety of items. I had to call customers on nearly every order because they were out of something. I talked to a stocker at the store and they told me they hadn’t gotten a shipment in all week because bad weather had stopped their trucks (third sign). I hurried through my orders the rest of the day, trying to reach my delivery quota, and adding up every cent of my tips. That evening, grocery curbside orders that usually take 10 minutes were taking HOURS to receive as the grocery story was overwhelmed with last-minute orders. The store ended up closing the curbside for the day and rescheduling all deliveries for Sunday morning (another sign).
Sunday morning, Valentine’s day. I am far from my goal. I checked the forecast. Sunday night was going to be bad. I made the decision to do as many runs as possible that morning and to head back to Houston around noon. I would be in before the snow was predicted to start. I knew I couldn’t handle another night that cold.
I picked up a few flower deliveries that morning and a few of the rescheduled grocery deliveries. It hit noon and I was about to clock out when I got a notification that I had been assigned another delivery. I was on the phone at the time talking to a friend. I asked her if she thought I should accept the order or not. She responded, “Girl, make your money!” I laughed and accepted the order. It took a while to make it to the store because the roads had already begun to ice over. Along the way, I saw about four cars on the side of the road. They had all spun out because of the ice (yet another sign).
I made it to the store, contacted the customer to let her know I was on the way but it would take longer than normal because of the weather. She responded with a warning about the icy steps, and cautioned me to walk slowly. Side note, Central Texas is known as Hill Country. And West Austin sits right in it. The neighborhood had a long entryway that was miles of hills and dips. At one point, my car kind of stalled while trying to make up a hill in the entry to the neighborhood. (sign number I lost count, clearly I was blind). I thought it was an issue with my car and didn’t connect it with the ice at that point.
I finally made it to their home. Their house sat lower than the main road. Their driveway was downhill. For a moment, I thought about leaving my car on top of the hill and walking the groceries down. Then I thought of all the YouTube clips I had seen of delivery people sliding on ice and it being captured on the doorbell camera. I thought to myself “ I am not about to go viral over this,” and decided to take my car down.
I proceeded with caution. I tapped on the gas ever so gently, just to give it enough momentum to roll forward. Tap the gas, tap the brake, tap the gas, tap the brake. Slowly, slowly, slowly… a little faster… wait, I didn’t tap the gas, I am tapping the brake. I continue to accelerate. I tap the brake again and again. It finally clicked to me that I was no longer in control of the car. My car was heading down the hill towards their home and I couldn’t do anything about it.
It seemed to all happen in a second but take an eternity at the same time. I had time to mental process everything but I couldn’t do anything to stop it. I closed my eyes tight and braced myself. I just prayed, “God don’t let me hit their house, I know I will lose my tip!” Now, to clarify, I was NOT spiraling out of control down the hill at top speeds. It was just gravity pulling me down. My car slid into their flower bed and bumped into a tree and came to a stop.
My heart was trying to make a run for it again. It was pounding so hard that I could hear the blood rushing in my ears. I stood staring at my car with this tree hanging over the hood. “WTF Chels, you should not have taken this order, Girl, you should NOT have tried to make that money.”
I checked for damage to the car and their property, The only causality seemed to be the tree. (I later found out, it was slumped over before I came. What a relief!) I called the customer and tried to speak as calmly and casually as possible.. I opened my mouth to speak and my heart jumped into my throat, eager to take a chance at a newly offered escape route. “ Hh…hello,” I struggled to vocalize. I swallowed hard to push my heart back down into its proper place. I explained the situation to the best of my ability. I then unloaded groceries as quickly as possible. No longer worried about a possible video of me slipping on ice. I just wanted to get out of there!
The man of the house came out to assess the situation. He slid me a few extra dollars for my trouble. I was no longer concerned with a tip either. I just wanted to be on the road headed home! We went to the car and started to attempt to extract my vehicle. I got it out of the grass and turned it around to face uphill. I tried to accelerate and build momentum to get uphill but just couldn’t. My car just slid back down every time. We decided to call it quits after a few more attempts. It was just too icy. We didn’t want to risk the car sliding back down and hitting the house. They invited me inside to wait for the tow truck. AAA estimated they would be there in about 1.5-2 hrs. Little did we know what would happen next.
I sat awkwardly at the kitchen bar. I kept my coat and multiple hoodies on as well as my mask. I was anxious and afraid to make noise, afraid to move, or even draw attention to my presence. It was the longest two hours of my life. I shared my location with my brothers, just in case the couple turned out to be serial killers and something happened. I carry pepper spray while I do my deliveries. I took note of which jacket pocket it was in, again, just in case. I frantically texted my friend and blamed her for the entire situation because she told me to accept the order. She laughed and apologized for encouraging me to “make that money.” I eventually calmed down and chuckled at the situation. Nothing was damaged and AAA was on the way, all was well. What a story to tell.
The two hours passed, AAA should be there any minute. I decided to go warm up the car. I spoke for the first time to let my host know that I was leaving. I had been so quiet and still that their dogs forgot that I was there. They went into full guard dog mode and started barking and charging towards me. (No worries, they are all bark and no bite). I went to wait in the car. Before I knew it, another hour and a half had passed and no AAA. I called several times and they said they were working on it. The man of the house came back outside and told me to come back in. I explained it was taking longer than expected. They told me I could sit upstairs and wait in the guest room so I could relax and watch TV. I went to the guest room, but I did not rest or watch TV. I just paced back and forth worrying.
My mind raced a million thoughts. My rent was past due—what if I got evicted? My car note was past due—what if they take my car? Can I make it home before it snows? Will I have to stay in a hotel tonight? What payment extensions can I make, again? Are these people serial killers? Can I take them if something pops off? What will happen when they kick me out? What are their names? Should I call my parents? Is Houston’s weather this bad? Where is the tow truck? What if they send a truck without a wrench? What if it doesn’t reach my car? They only take me five miles away, where can I go within five miles? What if the tow truck crashed on the way here? I need new tires. I hope my engine doesn’t freeze. What if my car stops working right now? What if they charge me for that tree it hit? What species was it? Is it expensive? What if Favor de-activates me for this? Why did they deny my claim? UGH! Why did I even go to New Orleans? I don’t even like it there.
After hours of pacing and multiple follow up calls to AAA, there was a knock at the door. I was invited down for dinner. At this point, it was 6 p.m., and still no tow truck. So, I went down for dinner; it was steak, potatoes, and broccolini. Kind of fancy. Then, I realized that it was a VALENTINE’S DAY dinner! The awkward level increased by a factor of ten. Over dinner, we finally exchanged names: Doug and Nina and the dogs were Crosby and Haddie. We made small talk over dinner. It was not the Valentine’s Day I had ever imagined, but I was nice.
AAA finally called back. A truck tried to make it to my location but couldn’t get there. Road conditions were too hazardous. I called every tow company in a 15 mile radius. No one had any trucks available. They were only responding to “police authorized tows.” I even tried to get an Uber. But clearly, if a tow truck couldn’t make it, neither could an Uber. Even if I did get a ride, I had no place to go. I had been sleeping in the car that weekend. What am I going to do?
Now cue the Houdini Heart, pounding on my sternum with such force and resilience. My mind kicks into overdrive with racing thoughts and I can feel myself starting to feel panicked. I take slow deep breaths. I try to calm my body and mind. “ Everything’s going to be alright, everything’s going to be OK” I sing to myself while I try to come up with a solution.
I hear a soft voice. It is quiet and calm but it manages to cut through the noise of my thoughts. “Well, Chelsea, you are welcome to stay here for the night.”
Wow. In the thousand of thoughts that had been racing through my mind per second, that option had never once occurred to me. I am a stranger. They don’t know me. I could be a serial killer. I could be a thief. I could have COVID and passed my COVID germs when I passed the broccolini. They don’t know what they got into.
“Are you sure? I don’t want to impose.”
Both Nina and Doug assured me that it was no problem. It was late, the storm had already started, and it was not safe for me to leave.
And that was that. I went up to “my room.” All my emotions built up and they were very close to overflowing. There I was just sitting there, old, single, broke, and stranded with a stranger. I struggled to keep it all together. I made a few calls and made sure someone knew where I was and that I was safe. I called one more tow company, just to try. The dispatcher informed me that all trucks had been dispatched to clear a 30 car pile-up.
I sat on the bed and soaked in everything that led up to that moment. Everything that went wrong that day, that week, and over the last year in general. I sat in silence and then began to cry. Anxiety crept in and then a slew of negative thoughts engulfed my mind all at once. One single thought acted as a silver lining. I could have been car #31. That could have been me in one of the cars on the side of the highway. But thank God it wasn’t. Somehow, I ended up at the doorstep of Nina and Doug. How blessed am I? I am not on the side of the road, not injured, not freezing in my car. I am here in a warm bed, full from a steak dinner.
These people let a complete stranger into their home during a global pandemic! Who does that?! The thought of their kindness pushed out all negativity. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and relief, I cried and thanked God that He had led me to safety. I was so grateful that Nina and Doug welcomed me in with no hesitation. For the first time in days, my mind was quiet, my heartbeat was a normal rhythm, and I was able to sleep.
I awoke the next morning to see 6.4 inches of fresh snow. (OK, Northerners laugh all you want, that isn’t normal for us. I would like to see you play football with a triple-digit heat index.) Brain on, and heart jumping already. I was slightly relieved by one fact. At this point, I made the determination that they were indeed NOT serial killers. A commonality I very much appreciated. This snow, however, presents an entirely new set of concerns.
I called my parents and told them what was going on. “Hey Dad, how are you?… Oh, that’s great…but umm, yeah…I am in a bit of a pickle.” We had a “Morning Mission Briefing.” We discussed solutions to get me home. My dad called tow companies and got the same response as I had gotten the night before. AAA had me on a waitlist with no definite time. I didn’t want to go down to breakfast without being able to present to my host a plan of action. But at this point, so many factors were completely out of my control.
I went downstairs, expecting them to ask a million questions. Instead, I was asked only one: “Would you like some coffee?” I explained that I was still waiting for a tow, etc. They shrugged and said, “If you couldn’t get out yesterday, I doubt you can get out today.” They encouraged me to stay again if needed.
I went back to “my room,” closed the door; here came the tears. I cried again. Tears of joy. Who does this?! I asked myself this question a million times during my stay. Every day, I would go through the same cycle. I would wake up in full panic mode. My anxiety would be through the roof. I would call my parents to discuss options. Then I would go downstairs and present said options to Nina and Doug. They would listen, and then say, “Just stay until we know it is safe for you to make it home.” They became more insistent when they realized that home was all the way in Houston.
I offered to leave and stay in a hotel. Nina asked, “well what would you eat?” All the restaurants were closed because of the weather. Grocery stores had bare shelves and the state was losing power left and right. “The guest room is better than the Hampton Inn,” she would always say. The truth is that all of the hotels were booked, and there wasn’t a room left in the city. So many people had lost power and sought refuge in hotels.
I would read the news and every day seemed more tragic than the last. Power loss, busted pipes, heaters catching fire, people dying in their sleep. This storm rattled the entire region. The weatherman gave us a warning, but no one was prepared for what actually happened. I felt helpless being so far from my family while they dealt with all of the side effects of the storm. So many people were struggling.
Then there was me… stranded 177 miles from home but ended up safer than I would have been if I had actually made it home. I found out that my apartment lost water and power for several days. Matter of fact, I didn’t get water back on until two weeks after the storm. We were fortunate enough to never lose power, heat, or water during the brunt of the storm.
On Sunday at 12 p.m., I accepted a delivery order for a complete stranger. Literally one of the thousands of deliveries I have made. Since the start of COVID, I remain a stranger during most deliveries. “No contact delivery” has made it so many people never even see my face during our entire transaction. In this case, not only did they see my face, but they shared their home with me for a total of six days and five nights.
They shared their space with me when social distancing and quarantining were standard practices. They shared their food with me when stores had empty shelves. They shared their life stories with me during conversations over dinner. At first glance, one is quick to notice all that was different between us. Race, age, status, background. Over those six days, we found out we had so many things in common.
They did everything they could to put me at ease. They were warm and open and made sure I was taken care of the entire week. It was literally almost like a vacation. Doug made me coffee every morning and Nina and I planned all of our meals. Once they found out that I was a baker, Nina gave me free rein of the kitchen and I baked a gluten-free coconut cake. ( Hands down, the best coconut cake I have ever made.)
We shared an experience of a lifetime together—it was definitely a story for the ages. Despite the climate of the world around us, we had made a bond.
Over the next few days, a routine was established: morning coffee with Doug, afternoon playtime with the dogs while Doug and Nina worked, dinner and conversation together in the evening. I got so used to their presence that I was almost sad to leave when the weather finally cleared.
I drove home Friday afternoon and took note of the aftermath of the storm. Scattered along the highway was car after car that was wrecked and abandoned over the last few days. My feeling of gratitude grew deeper with every car I saw. So many times I tried to leave and “ get out of their hair,” but Nina and Doug insisted I stay safe. I will never forget their kindness and how openly they gave. They had no idea what I had been through or of my anxiety, or any of my situations. They never saw our differences, they just saw a human in need and they provided help.