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Community celebrates new homeless youth shelter

One of Skyler Jordan’s sisters died by suicide while the other was murdered.

“I had a family dynamic of chaos and violence. I had to walk out in order to survive,” she said.

Jordan found a new home at a Medford youth shelter run by the nonprofit group Hearts With A Mission.

Jordan, now 23, stayed there for almost a year, then got a full-ride scholarship to Southern Oregon University, where she earned a degree in criminal justice.

She’s back at Hearts With A Mission — but this time as a life coach, not a runaway teen.

Jordan watched on Thursday as dozens of community members gathered for a ribbon-cutting at a newly built youth shelter. The new building at 517 Edwards St. stands next to Hearts With A Mission’s old shelter behind Kids Unlimited. In the coming year, the old shelter will be turned into a transitional living center for youths who are aging out of foster care.

Having both a homeless youth shelter and a transitional center will mean Hearts With A Mission can serve even more kids.

While having food and a warm bed is critical, Jordan said Hearts With A Mission offers something even more important to kids in need.

“It’s the love. It’s the connections with people,” she said.

The new 15-bed shelter for kids ages 10-17 is designed to foster those connections with a family-style atmosphere.

The building features an open floor plan with a spacious living room, long dining table and kitchen. It has four bedrooms for girls, three for boys and a gender neutral bedroom that complies with Americans with Disabilities Act access standards. Office spaces provide privacy for kids to meet with life coaches and case managers, plus have family visits.

Local businesses and other community partners pitched in to help build the shelter.

Jordan said she moved a lot when she was a kid, but she never felt homesick until she left the old Hearts With A Mission shelter to start college.

“It was the first good place I had ever lived,” she said of the shelter.

The first Hearts With A Mission youth shelter opened in 2009 after founder and executive director Kevin Lamson felt compelled to help homeless kids in Jackson County. The shelter was in a renovated house.

Bryan Wenzel remembers the exact day he came to live in that shelter — June 18, 2011.

“It started a new chapter in my life,” he said.

Wenzel, now 25, said he came from a broken home and turned to drugs and alcohol. He built a support system of sorts, but it wasn’t based on healthy relationships.

Then adult mentors at Hearts With A Mission helped him repair his life and his relationship with his dad — and find a purpose in his life.

“It’s nice knowing that when you’re here, you’re part of a home. You’re part of a family. You feel like you can change from who you were,” he said.

Wenzel is now a case manager at Hearts With A Mission. The faith-based group has operated a shelter long enough that kids who got a fresh start there have grown up and are helping today’s at-risk youths, he said.

“It’s this ripple effect that is forever growing,” he said.

Wenzel said there is no single reason why kids come to the shelter, which serves homeless, runaway and at-risk kids.

“For one reason or another, home is not a safe option for them. Their family could be homeless. They could be doubled up and not have room for them. They could be in a tent or car or some other place not meant for habitation. The family could be unsafe due to abuse or neglect, drugs, alcohol — whatever brings a kid in here,” he said.

A major goal of Hearts With A Mission is helping kids redefine what is normal.

For some, watching their moms get beat up is normal. Not knowing where their parents are for days at a time is normal. Going without food is normal, Wenzel said.

“That’s not normal though,” he said.

Lamson, the group’s founder, said Hearts With A Mission can’t solve all of the kids’ problems.

“We don’t have all the answers to all the situations they’re going through, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t walk along beside them. And that really provides hope,” he said.

Hearts With A Mission helps kids stay in school, repair relationships with their families if appropriate, learn life and employment skills and connect with other services in the community.

Kids can stay at the shelter on an emergency basis for up to 72 hours, or they can live there for up to 120 days with parental or guardian consent.

Shelter Coordinator/Manager Will Young said the average stay is 47 days.

“We look at it like, ‘You have 47 days to make a difference,’” he said.

But adults hope to make a connection so they can keep communicating with kids and guiding them even after they leave, Young said.

Jordan said some kids have a rough time when they first come to the shelter. They aren’t used to having positive interactions with adults, and no one has held them accountable. Some run away — but then find they miss the shelter.

“They come back and say, ‘I struggled in the beginning because nobody ever cared what I ate or what I did or if I went to school. I need that accountability,’” Jordan said.

Wenzel, who is now happily married, looks back with appreciation at the time he spent at the shelter.

“Not only did they change my life, but I see the impact every single day that we make in these young people that we serve,” he said.

For more information about Hearts With a Mission and the Medford youth shelter, call 541-646-7385 or see heartswithamission.org.

Hearts With a Mission also operates a youth shelter in Grants Pass. Call 541-956-4190.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Community members celebrate the opening of the new Hearts With A Mission youth homeless shelter with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Medford on Thursday. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune