The Nicest Place in Texas: Highland Village

NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2020 FINALIST
"Angels With Cowboy Hats"

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“Not all angels have halos. Some wear cowboy hats.”

“Not all angels have halos. Some wear cowboy hats,” says Elaine Hankins of her Highland Village neighbors.

Highland Village is a Dallas suburb of 16,000 that hugs the Hickory Creek arm of the Lewisville Lake. Single-family homes are connected by several parks and trails. Although only 30 miles from Dallas, it maintains a small-town feel.

As COVID-19 began affecting small businesses, Village Upholstery, the auto upholstery business owned by Hankins and her husband, Larry, was feeling the financial strain of the shelter-in-place order. Then, a few days after Easter, they found an envelope in the bushes in their front yard. It read “To Larry from the Easter Bunny,” and inside was a $100 gift card to Walmart.

The donation was part of a larger campaign neighbors organized to help keep Village Upholstery afloat, including a GoFundMe and many donations brought right to the Hankins’ house, where their business is based.

The people in Highland Village have stepped up for the Hankins family before. When Larry underwent surgery to treat serious melanoma last December, neighbors stayed with Elaine through the day and night of the 14-hour surgery; during the following seven-day ICU stay, a troop of helpers picked up medications and brought food so Elaine didn’t have to leave her husband’s side.

larry hankinsCourtesy Elaine Hankins
Larry Hankins in his workshop

“It was a small act of kindness that saved me a lot of stress of worrying how I was going to get that done while I needed to stay at the hospital,” says Elaine.

Last February, when Larry was still undergoing cancer treatment, two Village Upholstery customers arrived to find him mopping water that had flooded his garage when the seal on his water heater had failed. Later that day, they returned with a new water heater and installed it at no charge. Soon after, Elaine had to have a disc removed from her neck and couldn’t drive for three weeks. Angels again stepped in, volunteering to drive Larry for his cancer treatments.

“We are grateful for all the support we have received from our family, friends, customers, and neighbors,” says Elaine. “We’ve always tried to help people when we can, and that’s come back to us.”

That’s how people do in Highland Village. Nearby, another family with a small business struggling through COVID-19 joined the town’s virtuous cycle of kindness. AJ and VJ Jain, co-owners of Delhi6 Indian Kitchen, had just held their grand opening two days before restaurants were ordered temporarily closed. Still, the brothers were optimistic. “I thought, look at what you can do, not what you cannot do,” VJ told Reader’s Digest.

So they ordered a bunch of to-go containers and moved quickly to put in place the infrastructure to become a robust takeout business. They signed up with Grubhub and Uber Eats, put the word out on Instagram and Facebook that they were open for business, and pretty soon, the orders poured in.

Delhi6 exteriorCourtesy Delhi6
Delhi6 rose to the challenge after they were forced to close their doors two days after opening.

No money? No problem. They handed out free food to customers who couldn’t afford to pay. They even came up with a code name for the free food: Happy Meals. “If it comes to a point where you have to go to sleep hungry, come here, no questions asked,” VJ says. “Ask for a Happy Meal and you don’t have to pay.”

By the time they ended their Happy Meals program at the beginning of June, they were giving away around 20 lunches every day. When a man who didn’t live in the area brought his three children to the restaurant, the owners provided lunch and dinner for the family to take with them. “The man said, ‘God bless you,’” says VJ. “I can’t buy blessings, so that was a really good feeling.”

The Nomination

Our journey of finding out just how great our friends, family and neighbors are began last December with my husband’s first surgery for treatment of melanoma skin cancer. As soon as word got around of my husband’s health challenge, we got a lot of offers of help for whatever we might need but it’s been surprising how the help came from unlikely places. One friend offered to come stay with me during the initial surgery because our son couldn’t make the trip to Texas from Iowa. I was there at 5:00 am and she arrived at 10:00 am and stayed until 8:00 pm which really helped because his surgery was 14 hours. She brought a puzzle for us to do while we waited and that helped to pass the time and another friend met the two of us for lunch at the hospital to take a break from the waiting area . A neighbor picked up a script for me at a pharmacy when I was stuck at the hospital while my husband was in ICU for 7 days. It was a small act of kindness that saved me a lot of stress of worrying how I was going to get that done while I needed to stay at the hospital.

We are blessed to have a small business that we run from home and our customers have been really great about stepping up. One morning in January, we woke up to a lake in the garage after our water heater had leaked it’s entire contents onto the floor. A couple of customers had stopped in to visit and found my husband trying to mop up the mess so they took it upon themselves to purchase a new water heater (with our objections), remove the old one and install the new one. Not all angels wear halos — some of their wear cowboy hats! My husband was recuperating from his second surgery the middle of January so he was in no shape to tackle this big job.

We were beginning to hear the rumblings about the Corona virus but being in Texas insulated us from the horrors that were coming toward New York City. His radiation treatments began in February and we saw that masks were being worn by more and more people as the weeks went by. Of course, my husband was wearing a mask each time due to being in treatment for cancer. I was driving him each 5 days a week for two weeks until I had to get some surgery done on my neck so he took two days off. After that, I wasn’t able to drive him for a couple of weeks because I was wearing a cervical collar. Once again, our customers and a neighbor took turns coming to the rescue to drive him down and back after his radiation treatments.

Elaine HankinsCourtesy Elaine Hankins
Elaine Hankins is thankful to live in such a supportive community.

In the meantime, of course, business has fallen off like every other small business in the country. One customer set up a GoFundMe page to help us stay afloat and we had many customers/friends show up with envelopes of money and gift cards besides those who contributed to the GFM site. One customer came along one morning after Easter and had a little envelope in his hand labeled “To Larry From The Easter Bunny” that he swore he found out in the bushes out front. Inside was a $100 gift card for WalMart!

We still receive cards in the mail that give my husband a little lift to keep going in the fight to eradicate this illness. He is in the final stages of treatment and is dealing with side effects of radiation so the kind words are very helpful. Another neighbor has decided he and his boys will cut our grass and over last weekend he was up on the roof trimming branches of a tree that were scraping the shingles. He saw my husband with a ladder on the front of the house and came flying out his front door telling him to wait a few minutes and he would be back after getting a quick breakfast. We are so lucky to have such caring neighbors!

Another neighbor helped us out after learning I was having difficulty finding hand sanitizer. We wipe down everything like doorknobs and counters when customers come in. So she ordered extra sanitizer for us to use knowing how important it is to keep our work area as safe as possible for my husband during a pandemic.

Just recently the son of one of our clients who has gone through this about 8 years stopped by to see how my husband was doing and handed him an envelope with a gift card for a local restaurant. That was so nice to be able to even just get take out during this marathon of fighting cancer during a pandemic. It’s been very helpful to see someone on the other side who is thriving.

Our business is coming back in trickles but it’s probably all we can handle in this stage of treatment. We are grateful for all the support we have received from our family, friends, customers and neighbors. We intend to pay it forward in the future should we come across a family fighting this fight.

We are humbled by the outpouring of support both monetarily and the cards and notes that come in the mail. Another neighbor has decided he and his boys will be taking care of our lawn while treatment continues now with infusion treatments that started late March. By this time, the stay at home orders were in place so we limit how many trips we take outside with both of us being over 65 and my husband’s treatments. A neighbor will pick up things for us occasionally as needed.

We have been married for 45 years and have had a small auto upholstery business for 30 plus years. We originally were located in Iowa but moved to Texas for my husband to work at Gulfstream Aerospace in the interiors department. My husband really loved working on aircraft and is certified by the FAA.

After the economy collapsed in 2008 he was laid off, so we started up a new trim shop here in Texas for the last ten plus years. We have built up a very nice group of loyal customers who have referred many new customers to us. Our mantra is “Do it right the first time”.

About the virus, we find most of our community believes that lives are more important than the quick economic buck. We don’t believe that ‘there are more important things than living’ according to our lieutenant governor. It’s fine to offer up someone else’s life on the altar of “getting our economy going”. The uneducated seem to think if they don’t personally know someone who has dealt with this virus, then it really isn’t part of their reality. Apparently the rising death toll isn’t “real” enough for them. We have told folks that show at our door that if they are not willing to wear a mask then we cannot do business with them. We are being extremely cautious. Science and data should dictate what businesses are safe to open and how quickly commerce should start back up!

I would say that our community was pretty average about being nice or kind but the illness and treatment we have been facing would have been more daunting without the many kind and unwavering folks that have come our way in these last 6 months. Even with the virus making contact dangerous, we have been blessed by so many caring people.

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