The disparate reactions by members of Congress to President Trump's State of the Union address revealed Republicans and Democrats deeply divided, with most in the GOP cheering wildly and most Democrats sitting on their hands. Naturally the roles were reversed when President Barack Obama was in office.
So much is said about our divided nation that we are in danger of believing it. Fortunately, most Americans do not define their lives by their political affiliations — no, not even here in Trump country.
When Houston was hit last year by Hurricane Harvey, families were displaced, schools opened late and, for a lot of students, Christmas was shaping up to be nothing more than another Monday in December. So in November, Mindy Lawson, a teacher at Hillsboro High School — more than a thousand miles from Houston — contacted the Houston Independent School District to ask who needed help the most. She was pointed to Evan E. Worthing High School.
Worthing High School is in Harris County, Tex., where Hillary Clinton received about 54 percent of the vote overall in 2016. But according to county election officials, Clinton got about 95 percent of the vote in the Sunnyside precincts that Worthing draws from. The student population at Worthing is 82 percent black, 17 percent Hispanic and about one-half of 1 percent white.
Hillsboro High School is in Highland County, Ohio, where 76 percent of voters supported Donald Trump. Ninety-two percent of Hillsboro students are white, 2 percent are black, and 1 percent are Hispanic, along with a small number of other racial identifications.
After speaking with Worthing officials, Lawson shared an idea with Hillsboro students: Let's bring Christmas to Worthing. Students immediately embraced the concept, and others began to chip in. What was dubbed "Hillsboro to Houston" snowballed, with Lawson noting, "People were volunteering to offer everything from services such as wrapping presents to delivery vehicles from self-owned trucking companies. It was all very overwhelming."
Eventually, about 1,500 gifts were collected, and Hillsboro residents Jon and Laura Pickering-Polstra volunteered to make the 18-hour drive in a 15-passenger van, along with their five children, to deliver the presents. Enough gifts were transported to allow families to choose three for each student and one for each adult.
A few weeks after Christmas, Times-Gazette Assistant Editor Jeff Gilliland met with Hillsboro students to talk about their project. Gideon Pickering-Polstra said that as he watched the gifts being distributed, "I was smiling because we were helping all these people. I noticed that they were getting presents they don't normally get, and I was like, 'whoa.' Sometimes in Hillsboro we take for granted everything we, or at least I, have in comparison to the rest of the world."
There was no conversation between the two schools on the merits of Trump country vs. Clinton country, no discussion of racial issues, no debates about other political opinions. There was only one group of high school students helping another group of high school students.
"First of all, it wasn't just the school and kids, it was an entire community that those kids impacted," Khalilah Campbell-Rhone, the principal at Worthing, told Gilliland. She added that the impression left with the Worthing student body was lasting. "They didn't know that someone from that far away would think to do something like that," she said. "It gave them the thought that they should pay it forward, too, and now they are planning a project to do something for someone else."
Outreach efforts such as "Hillsboro to Houston" happen often across the United States, including both extravagantly planned projects and small but meaningful gestures. Such acts don't receive the round-the-clock media attention accorded to the battles that rage in the political world, but they're at least as important.
When Americans are contacted by pollsters and asked to consider whether they approve of Trump, or whether they support a particular legislative proposal, or whether they'll vote Republican or Democrat in the next election, they'll usually provide an answer. But for the most part, they weren't thinking about it before they were asked, and they return to more important things after they hang up.
The pollsters tell us we're a divided nation, a mantra endlessly repeated in the political media. But in reality, when it matters most, Americans don't sit on their hands. They reach out and help, without caring how someone else voted in the last election. That's what will always make America great and forever united.