This article appears in the Fall 2018 issue of Silicon Slopes Magazine.
Stephenie Larsen is the CEO of Encircle, an LGBTQ+ Family Resource Center in Provo, Utah, and one of the recipients of the Silicon Slopes Community Hero awards.
Larsen grew up a member of The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints. In her youth she believed homosexuality was both a sin and a threat to her country. But when she married her husband Mitch Larsen, she met his uncle John Williams who is gay. Larsen says of Williams, “As I got to know John I found he was one of the most fun, wonderful, most Christ-like people I've ever known.” Larsen’s relationship with Williams over twenty years changed the way she thought about homosexuality and gay individuals. “A lot of things that I thought I knew and believed, I just started to question them because I couldn't understand how I could consider John not a good person,” she explains.
After living out of state for ten years, Larsen and her family moved back to Provo. Larsen was alarmed to learn of Utah’s high suicide rate, especially among LGBTQ+ youth, who are three times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. “I started wondering why John Williams was able to survive 50 years ago as a gay man in Salt Lake, but youth in my community didn't feel like their lives were worth living. It just kind of felt like we were moving backwards on LGBTQ issues,” Larsen says. So Larsen called Williams and asked if he would help her create a space in Provo to help LGBTQ+ youth. “We decided that this place needed to look like home and feel like home for individuals who didn't feel like they were at home anywhere, if that was at school, in their homes, or at churches,” Larsen says. “We wanted this to be a resource in the community and something that reflected our community’s values rather than pushing up against them.” Larsen and Williams also wanted to help families stay together, looking to Williams’ family as an example. “He didn't spend years trying to repair family relationships like so many of these youths do. He was just able to move forward and start developing his talents and do all that he did in life,” Larsen explains.
During the months before Encircle opened, Larsen would wake up in the morning and implore herself to be brave. “I was scared to death but I also really had seen this need. Realizing that maybe 5-15% of our population are LGBTQ and they need love and support. I didn't know what that looked like, I just knew that I think we have a problem and that something needed to be done.” In the beginning, Larsen hoped Encircle would be a place where LGBTQ+ youth could come do homework, eat cookies, and just feel safe for a few hours. But since opening, Encircle has exceeded her expectations and become a place full of programs including therapy, family therapy, support groups, and featured speakers. “All our programs are meant to give the youth a sense of confidence in who they are and to help support them so they feel connection and love,” Larsen says. “[The programs] are meant to bring their families together and help families be affirming and understanding of their kids while still respecting the family’s values. We are trying to give these kids role models and hope for the future. As well as their parents seeing that there are great LGBTQ people who are making a difference in the world and hopefully that helps parents to be more accepting.”
Every month Encircle sees over 850 youth, and the average youth has been back 21 times. “To us that is saying we are providing something that is improving their life,” Larsen says. Larsen and her team are opening locations in Salt Lake and Saint George to serve more youth in need all over the state. Encircle survives mostly on online donations, and with the donated money is able to offer programming and affordable therapy to every youth who comes in. Encircle is open from 2-9 Monday through Friday, holds special events on Saturdays, and offers brunch and parent support groups on Sundays.
In addition to donations, Encircle benefits from the efforts of many volunteers. “I was afraid that this place would be picketed before we opened,” Larsen says. “Instead we have had literally hundreds and hundreds of people give their time and their services and even donate financially to this. So I feel like I have seen nothing but the best in people.” Larsen explains that many of the donors and volunteers come from within The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints. “We feel like when people get to know each other that is when things change, that the love begins to happen, and the empathy and understanding comes into place,” Larsen says. “I think we are all just working better, working to come together as a community more. Encircle doesn't claim to have all the answers, but we do believe that loving one another and standing with those that mourn and are in need of comfort is really one of the most important things in life.”
“For me personally, as I have gotten to know these families and these LGBTQ youth,” Larsen says. “I can say they are the most incredible, kind, forgiving, smart, talented people I have ever met. I think they are an extremely important part of our community. The more we love them and keep them from feeling shame about who they are, the more that our communities will benefit by having them in our communities. They bring so much talent and love to the community that if they are thriving, we will be better off.”
Encircle offers volunteer training one Saturday every month. You can find the schedule and donate online at encircletogether.org