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Season of Giving Back

Wild forward Chris Stewart remembers where he came from, wants to help young adults in same position

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers / Wild.com

Stewart visits Hope 4 Youth

Chris Stewart visits Hope 4 Youth

Wild forward Chris Stewart offers encouragement - and some holiday gifts - to Hope 4 Youth participants

  • 01:07 •

COON RAPIDS -- Minnesota Wild forward Chris Stewart has built a reputation as one of the NHL's true tough guys. It's a reputation that has been cultivated over years of being willing to protect teammates and make them feel safe on the ice.

Stewart has also been doing his part to help protect and enrich the lives of young adults in the Twin Cities area with a recent donation to the Hope 4 Youth organization, a nonprofit that provides basic needs for youth ages 23 and under experiencing homelessness or those who are at-risk of becoming homeless.

Hope 4 Youth already had a drop-in center in Anoka but just opened new transitional housing earlier this month. It's designed to not only put a roof over the heads of homeless young adults, but to also help put them on a path to becoming productive members of society by helping them finish school, find employment and provide access to health and wellness services.

The vision for the new shelter was hatched three years ago and has been steered by Lisa Jacobson, the organization's executive director, along with Paul Ekstrom, a realitor in the north metro, as well as David and Polly Mitchell, the co-owners of Heartland Tire.

"Hope" is an acronym for Housing, Outreach, Prevention and Education, the main services the organization aims to provide.

With the holidays upcoming, Stewart -- who grew up in a tough section of Toronto -- and his wife Holley approached the organization about finding a way to help underprivileged youth in the Twin Cities.

Around the same time, the Mitchells -- four-year season ticket holders of the Wild -- reached out to the club about partnering with Heartland Tire. While chatting with Wild account executive Jeff Hunsaker, Hope 4 Youth and its importance to their business came up. 

It was a perfect match at the perfect time.

"For me, it's about doing the right thing, especially this time around the holidays," Stewart said. "My mom passed away coming up on eight years ago now. I think this is something she would be really proud of. Just to see the looks on the kids faces and see it brighten up their days for a just for a couple minutes, it's so big.

"You just want them to know that there's hope and there is inspiration and if you can change their lives and just motivate them. I can see they're already motivated."

Stewart made a trip to the facility on Friday, bringing with him a washer and dryer as well as an XBoxLive, games, alarm clocks and other presents for the residents.

The transitional housing, located off Coon Rapids Boulevard, is in a building that once hosted a dance studio and a daycare facility. But it was perfect for the organization, which raised the $700,000 necessary to retrofit the building with 12 studio apartments, capable of hosting a dozen young adults as they transition from homelessness to providing for themselves. 

"When you see the units, you might say, 'Why can't you have more [people] in here?'" Jacobson said. "Transitional living is all about living on your own and learning independent living skills. When you're in a shelter, you're in a room with four other strangers. That's about housing and the short term. This is about what an apartment is going to feel like when they transition on their own from here."

Originally, the belief was the group was going to open an emergency bed shelter. The drop-in shelter in Anoka closed at 7 p.m. each night, which forced homeless young adults onto the streets. 

"We thought if we could get them a place where they could stay for the night, at least they wouldn't be on the streets," Ekstrom said.

After traveling to Colorado and to three other shelters in the Twin Cities, Hope 4 Youth decided transitional housing would be the best way to go.

The Mitchells were inspired to be a part of the project after reading about a homeless 17-year-old boy who was spending nights in a tent not far from their home in Blaine. It was winter time and David Mitchell said he remembered how he felt as he heard the icy winds blowing over his home.

"For the next week, we were laying in bed and we couldn't sleep at night," he said. "We were thinking about this boy who was out there sleeping in a tent."

The Mitchells got their team together and mapped out a way, between their 14 Heartland Tire locations, to donate $500,000 over 15 years to cover the mortgage of the new transitional housing building.

So far, they are ahead of schedule.

On Friday, David and Polly walked into the building for the first time. Both were nearly overcome by emotion as they saw what their contribution had helped build.

"There are 12 youth here who will not be [sleeping in tents] this winter because of people pursuing this," David Mitchell said. "It's been really rewarding to be a part of this."

Stewart never spent his nights in a tent, but it wasn't uncommon for he, his parents and his six siblings to sleep in shelters located in his hometown of Toronto.

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"We didn't have a lot, but we had each other," Stewart said. "It's kind of cliche, but I wouldn't trade it for the world."

While visiting Friday, Stewart met with three of the first four residents who moved into the facility on Thursday.

Beau, 18, was born in the Phillipines and moved to Mississippi when he was 5. He just moved to Minnesota in June and is in the midst of his first Minnesota winter.

"It's cold," he said. 

Beau hasn't seen his parents in eight years, but is at Anoka-Hennepin Technical High School finishing up his diploma. He wants to go to college and become a math teacher, working with either middle or high-school kids.

"It helps me out so I can get a job and do my career," he said. "I've never had my own apartment before."

Stewart also met with Adriana, also 18, who was "couch surfing" in Elk River when she was notified that she was one of the first 12 chosen to live at Hope 4 Youth.

A big fan of the television show "Criminal Minds," Adriana wants to finish school, go to college and eventually become a criminal psychologist. 

Her new living arrangements will make that a possibility.

"It was very difficult not knowing where I was going to be staying every night," she said. "Not knowing where I was going to stay long term was a huge stress for me. Now that I'm here, it's just a huge weight off my shoulders."

It's a burden that Stewart knows all too well and one he wanted to do his part to help relieve.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about how grateful I am and how easily I could have gone the other way," said Stewart, who also partners with another local organization, HopeKids, on the Xcel Energy Center "Stew Crew" suite during Wild games and is highly involved in the Toronto community, as well. "I think it's my duty to reflect and give back to the community.

"There are so many people who are underprivileged. The people here with this charity, they really believe in it and they're making a difference."

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