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Project coordinator Deana Petersen and a crew of 33 Lowe's Heroes stayed warm by staying busy. Wearing Santa hats and sweaters in 40-degree weather, they arrived at 8:30 a.m. and didn't finish up the last of their repairs until after dark.

They had returned to Hearts With a Mission in Medford, Ore., the week before Christmas, to help ready the youth shelter for its big opening in a few days. As they worked, Petersen said, they watched people walk up and knock on the door asking for help.

"No one was turned away," said Petersen, Lowe's of Medford's administrative manager. "They let them into the shelter, offered them food and clothing, coats and shoes. One mom we saw would not accept any items for herself but only for her children."

Any chill the Lowe's volunteers felt from the cold instantly melted away.

Hearts with a Mission officially opened its doors four days later, providing temporary, emergency shelter to homeless and at-risk youths in Jackson County. The building's one-year transformation, from a dilapidated house to a nine-bedroom shelter, was completed with a concerted community effort. Executive director Kevin Lamson asked for the support of area businesses early on and Lowe's responded.

"This is a community that needs help, and Lowe's has done over and above what I thought any chain would do," Lamson said. "You could really tell it touched their hearts."

Growing Problem in Oregon and Beyond

'The Lowe's Heroes, or Heroes With Hearts, as Petersen calls the Medford team, volunteered more than 1,000 hours on the project. Lowe's provided labor, services and supplies in partnering with Hearts With a Mission and local businesses and organizations to fill a need in Jackson County and address a problem that is growing across the United States.

Families with children are among the fastest-growing segments of the homeless population, and experts cite the recession and rise in foreclosures and layoffs as catalysts for the escalating numbers. In Jackson County, the number of homeless students climbed about 4 % to 1,709 in the 2008–09 school year, according to an Oregon Department of Education report. In Medford, a city of 76,000 just 27 miles north of the California border, more than 9 % of the school district's students are considered homeless. That's nearly three times the statewide rate. Medford ranks second only to Portland for the highest number of homeless students in Oregon.

The spotlight on Medford grew in October when The New York Times featured the southwest Oregon town in a two-part series on the growing number of young runaways in the United States.

"When you get noticed by The New York Times, it's time you take action," Lamson said. "We're not the only ones doing something for homeless youth. The thing that was lacking was a place where kids could spend the night. When we're shipping people to Portland, four or five hours away, or handing them a sleeping bag and saying, 'Good luck,' that's wrong."

Hearts With a Mission provides temporary emergency shelter to homeless youths, ages 10 to 17, for up to 72 hours without parental consent and up to 120 days with parental consent. The shelter has a trained staff that will offer crisis intervention, mentoring and mediation to youths, working with them to re-establish family ties, Lamson said.

"Twenty-five percent of homeless youth will remain homeless as adults," he said. "So if you can deter them from being homeless as a youth, there's a good chance they will grow up and be productive as adults."

Team Tackles Work With All-in Approach

The opportunity to affect change got Petersen involved in April, and the Lowe's administrative manager brought along plenty of help. Department managers Nick Goldade and T.J. Whipps took charge of the team during the first part of the project, which included a major cleanup effort. They worked with special order coordinator Jenny Casebere and specialist Liz Goodman to remove an old chain-link fence and install a new wooden one. It might have been Santa hats and sweaters in December, but Lowe's Heroes wore T-shirts and sunglasses when temperatures topped 100 in late June as they dug in to dig out large blackberry bushes during the fence removal.

"The most amazing part to see was the coming together of our team. This is a project that has touched many lives," said Petersen, who got her daughter, Keirsten, and husband, Gary, to help while Lowe's Zone Manager Michelle Forsyth recruited her fiance, Mark, and teenage son, Christian.

When the team returned in December, the volunteers installed shelving in the shelter, added fencing and planter beds on the grounds, and gave the storage cottage out back a facelift to match the one the shelter received months earlier. Lamson thanked the team that night, then again a few days later with a special message about a 17-year-old boy who came out of the cold and became the first teen to enter the shelter.

In its first 10 months, Hearts With a Mission helped 66 youths receive more than 2,200 nights of shelter, providing many with the hope of returning home to a healthy family.

Updated Nov. 15, 2010