The auburn-haired teen sits beside a window at Hearts With A Mission in Medford. Her ready smile flickers along with the autumn light as she recounts how her family's response to her homosexuality brought her to the brink of suicide. And how she regained hope at the faith-based teen shelter.

The auburn-haired teen sits beside a window at Hearts With A Mission in Medford. Her ready smile flickers along with the autumn light as she recounts how her family's response to her homosexuality brought her to the brink of suicide. And how she regained hope at the faith-based teen shelter.

Hearts With A Mission is entering its third year of providing shelter and support services for homeless, runaway and transitional-living youths ages 10 to 17, says Kevin Lamson, executive director.

The overall goals are to provide immediate emergency shelter for youths from families in crisis, to promote reunification of youths and parents when possible, to strengthen family relationships and to enable youths to make good choices regarding their futures, he says.

When Diana Ellis came out in the seventh grade, her mother's initial reaction was "OK," she says.

"She said she was fine with it," Ellis says.

But when the teen hit her freshman year in high school and began to have girlfriends, things changed.

"That's when I saw that saying I was gay and being gay were two different things," Ellis says.

Her mother and the rest of her extended family began "taking stabs," Ellis says.

"My whole family wasn't OK with me being openly gay," says the 17-year-old. "They were calling me names. Calling me a dyke. They would just put me down to the point where they knew it would hurt me. You get to the point where, you're like, how can you deal with this?"

And so Ellis says she began to hurt herself. She turned to self-mutilation as a way to express or control her internal pain by applying external pain.

"I was cutting all the time, real bad," says Ellis. "It was a lot of self-harm."

Desperate to escape the pain in her home and her heart, Ellis decided to run away. But not until she had a place to go, she says. Ellis reached out to a friend whose mother helped her find Hearts With A Mission.

In August 2011, Ellis told her mother she was going to the grocery store for a head of lettuce. Instead she grabbed the bag she'd packed with her underwear, socks and a couple of tops. Then she walked through the shelter doors.

"I came here hoping to straighten things out," Ellis says.

Like all who enter the shelter, Ellis' personal effects were subject to search by staff members.

"It's to make sure nobody brings anything in here that would be a danger to themselves or to others," Lamson says.

A staff member initially missed something dangerous in Ellis' wallet. Carefully wrapped in paper, hidden deep in a pocket, was a razor blade, she says.

"I told her, 'You should probably take this,'" Ellis says. "My biggest goal was stopping self-harm."

As of Oct. 16, the shelter had provided almost 9,000 nights of shelter for 245 youths since opening in December 2009. The average length of stay is 37 days, Lamson says.

"But we're not going to kick a kid out if they don't have a safe place to go," Lamson says, with a nod toward Ellis.

Ellis says she found support in the shelter that she could not get at home. For almost a year, she worked with staff counselors who helped rebuild her self-esteem through counseling and by devising a personalized "service plan" that helped her heal and plan for her future, Ellis says.

Ellis saw her mother once during a therapy session. Her caseworker called her mother with progress reports. But her mother refused to attend any further sessions, Ellis says.

"She said because I was crying so hard I was making her look like a bad mother. So she didn't want to come again," Ellis says.

Ellis has visited with some of her siblings since leaving the shelter. But she and her mother have not reconciled, she says.

Lamson says the best-case scenario is almost always a reconciliation between parent and child. But parents need to understand their children need love and acceptance.

"A lot of times parents think their kids are the problem," Lamson says. "I hear them say they don't want their kids anymore. But I ask them, 'Do you really not want your kid? Or do you just not want what's going on with them right now?' "

More than 74 percent of the youths at the shelter have been reunited with their families or alternate families, Lamson says.

"Mentoring is such a huge, huge piece of the puzzle," he says.

As staff helped Ellis find ways to deal with her painful feelings in non-destructive ways, they also supported her efforts to graduate a year early from North Medford High School, Ellis says.

Ellis didn't just get a GED. She walked at graduation with the rest of the students in her class, Lamson says.

"I witnessed it," Lamson says. "It was a lot of hard work."

Ellis was surprised to hear what Lamson knows — that there is a persistent rumor on the street that Hearts With A Mission forces religion down the throats of its shelter youth.

Ellis disputes the notion that anyone at the shelter preached, prayed or proselytized to her about her sexual orientation — or anything else.

"Nobody tried to 'pray away the gay,' " Ellis says, laughing. "And I'm not the only gay kid who's lived here."

Lamson says he has witnessed discrimination against gays within the faith community.

"I have chosen to put myself in the position not to judge," Lamson says. "We try to show love and compassion to all the kids. And I honestly know kids need love from caring adults."

Hearts With A Mission is faith-based, but it is not a religious organization, Lamson says.

"There are people who say, 'You're not faith-based enough,' " Lamson says. "There are other people who say, 'You're too faith-based.' "

Youth staying at the shelter, along with staff, eat together as a family each night. A prayer is offered by a staff member, a volunteer or a youth, thanking God for the meal and for the shelter, Lamson says.

Ellis is a self-avowed Christian. But youth are not required to pray or participate in any religious exercises at Hearts With A Mission. Some join hands to pray at dinner. Others do not. Everyone's choice is respected, Ellis says.

"I didn't even talk to anyone about my religion until November," Ellis says. "Everyone is treated the same here — if you're gay, if you're straight or if you believe in God or not."

Ellis left Hearts With A Mission in June. She has been working and living with roommates. She's moving to Portland soon to attend college and study psychology.

"Everyone here was so nice it was crazy," Ellis says. "It saved my life completely."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email sspecht@mailtribune.com.