Shawn Cox is hoping to help out in the Habitat for Humanity reconstruction of his family's house on Beekman St. where they have lived for 20 years. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune - Bob Pennell

Extreme Makeover: Habitat-style

A broken-down dishwasher stands between Shawn Cox and the laundry room. Its replacement, which also expired after a few months, crowds the already cramped kitchen, where Shawn must stand on tiptoes to hand-wash the dishes.

"This place "¦ it's just going to hell," Shawn says, shaking his head.

He's not only concerned that the two-bedroom house on Beekman Avenue has fallen into disrepair. Two wheelchairs that belong to his mother and sister barely scrape through the front door and won't fit into any of the home's tight corners, except its living room. The women must crawl between their bedrooms and the single bathroom.

Shawn, 24, does all the cooking, cleaning, laundry and chores for 45-year-old Crystal Rogers and 15-year-old Connor Cox, in a dwelling designed for people much larger than its "little" inhabitants. Crystal and her two children were born with the short stature, arms and legs characteristic of dwarfism.

"I basically have to climb down into the washer to get the clothes," Shawn says. "It's pretty hard for me, too."

The Medford family hasn't given up hope that even as their health and their home have deteriorated, circumstances could somehow improve. Several years ago, they received a call from the producers of ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," which demolishes undesirable houses and rebuilds them in elaborate fashion for grateful families. Waiting for good news, Crystal and her kids eventually learned that another Oregon family was chosen as the television show's beneficiaries.

A friend felt so bad about the turn of events that he tried to raise community support. A team of volunteers courted construction companies to donate labor, planned auctions to purchase materials and brainstormed fundraising events, but the momentum fizzled.

"These were all great ideas," says volunteer and family spokesman Anthony Lehrer. "They were just never able to come to fruition."

Volunteers attempted to draw Habitat for Humanity into the effort, but local representatives said the project didn't fit their practice of purchasing land and building for families working toward owning a home.

Since Crystal already was a homeowner, Habitat turned down her plea for assistance.

"It was just very sad, actually," says Denise James, executive director of Rogue Valley Habitat for Humanity. "This house is just falling down around them."

But a couple years and a couple more pitches later, Habitat's board of directors changed its mind and the family's prospects. They agreed to pay off Crystal's $44,000 loan, assume ownership of the house and property, demolish the structure, rebuild for the family's needs and sell it back for the appraised value, taking into account Crystal's equity and construction costs.

"What we're offering them is not at all grand," James says.

A grant from Thrivent Financial will help pay for the project while volunteers from local Lutheran congregations will do much of the work. It's the first "extreme home makeover" that the local Habitat chapter has undertaken, James says, adding that demolishing and then rebuilding on the same site is not common procedure for Habitat chapters nationwide. Yet it's in keeping with Habitat's spirit.

"It's really in our mission to eliminate poverty housing," James says. "The next year, somebody else just moves right into it."

The next move for Crystal, Shawn and Connor is into temporary accommodations for the next nine months or so. However, that's among the trickiest obstacles. Wheelchair-accessible rentals are in short supply, Lehrer says, adding that Crystal and Connor don't need a dwelling that conforms to disability standards, just one with ground-floor access and a "workable" interior. All three receive disability benefits and can afford to pay a modest amount toward rent.

As a last resort, Crystal and Shawn can stay with family in the Eugene area. But the situation would severely hamper their ability to put sweat equity into the building project, which Habitat will require in some form despite the family's physical limitations, James says.

Crystal says she can stuff envelopes at Habitat's Medford office, and Connor may fulfill her obligation by participating the local youth chapter. Shawn wants to work on the construction site but couldn't leave Crystal in Eugene without a caregiver.

The quandary has left Connor skeptical that the new house will ever materialize, while Crystal has suffered many a sleepless night.

"I'm scared to death," she says. "I've been having nightmares."

Delay isn't an option, either. The Thrivent grant stipulates that construction be completed by Dec. 31. Putting off the project also keeps another family from attaining status as homeowners. To maximize the land's value, Habitat is building a single-story, three-bedroom house for a single mother of two behind Crystal's house.

"I felt happy that not only are we getting a new house, but we're helping another family," Shawn says.

His family's new house will add 400 square feet and another bedroom to their living space. Not just wheelchair-accessible, the home will feature an open floor plan that's easily navigated.

And all the finishing touches will be to scale: lower counter tops, clothes rods in the closets, and windows they can "actually see out of," Connor says. Faucets will be at the sinks' sides, knobs on the front of the stove, as well as on the washer and dryer.

"This is going to be a very special house," says Susie Lee, Habitat family partner. "A lot of people in this community are excited about this project."

No one is more excited than Shawn, who won't have to bear the entire burden of his mother's and sister's daily needs. If they can fend for themselves, he could spend a weekend fishing with his uncle, an outing he's missed for years.

"We'll be able to function like — I hate saying the word 'normal,' " Connor says. "But like normal people."

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail

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