When Stephenie Larsen (she/her) moved away from Provo to Washington, D.C., to work on Capitol Hill, she realized that she had been living in a bubble her whole life. She realized that she had views of the world that were inaccurate.
She had gone to school at BYU where she first earned a degree in family science, then earned her law degree. In Washington, D.C., she worked on the committee for children, youth, and families, where she drafted legislation defending the traditional family and family values. After leaving Capitol Hill, she spent time working for a lobbying firm and defending abused and neglected children in innercity Washington, D.C.
Stephenie grew up LDS and just wanted to be a mother. She had experienced the divorce of her parents when she was growing up and didn’t want to repeat the same issues from her family.
She met her husband, Mitch, at BYU, and they later married when he was in medical school. They have six children.
Mitch’s uncle is John Williams, and it was through Stephenie’s friendship with John that the trajectory of her life completely changed. John was a very successful entrepreneur and businessman in Salt Lake City. He started renovating downtown buildings such as the New Yorker, Hardware building, and Ford building and created contemporary office spaces. In addition, he started SLC’s Downtown Alliance, as well as 13 restaurants, including The New Yorker, Café Pierpont, and Market Street Grill.
John was also openly gay.
“John was one of the most Christlike people I’ ve ever known, ” says Stephenie. “He took care of his family. He donated money anonymously to friends, employees, and organizations. He threw elaborate parties. He loved life, music, art, family. ”
After 10 years of living in Washington, D.C., Texas, and North Carolina, Stephenie moved back to Provo, Utah. She learned how high the teen suicide rates were in Utah, particularly in the LGBTQ+ community. LGBTQ+ youth are three times more likely to take their own lives than their straight peers. orientation a secret. They hear negativity from family and community, and they end up hating who they are. They have a lot they have to work through. They don’t live up to family expectations and fall into despair.
Another pivotal moment for Stephenie was when three male friends of her daughter came out as gay. There was a text string between a bunch of their peers where they were making judgments about these three boys. Two of the boys ended up being suicidal. It was after this that Stephenie knew that something had to be done. She called John and told him that she wanted to create a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth. She wanted to create a resource that provided love and support. John was supportive of her. Together, they decided it should be in a home for those who may not feel at home at school, church, or in their own homes.
Stephenie wanted a home that was part of the community —somewhere that people would see it and remember people we love within our community are LGBTQ. She considered the newly dedicated Provo City Center Temple as the center of the community. She thought she would drive around that area to see if she could find a home.
Across the street from the temple, there was an old house with stained glass windows with rainbows. She felt like this was the place. She got John on a video chat to show him the home. John loved it. Then she showed him that it was across from the temple, and he was hesitant with the house being so close. Stephenie knew that Provo was ready for this, and said to John, “If we can get the kids to be okay with themselves, and then get their family to be okay with them, but if they still feel judged by the community, they won’t thrive. We have to change the community. ” He agreed. Stephenie then brought Holly Alden to look at the house. Holly said, “What if I buy the house and rent it back for one dollar a month?” Things were falling into place for Stephenie’s vision.
Then tragedy hit. John Williams’s life was tragically taken by his husband of 10 years, and partner of 20 years. Stephenie’s inspiration, financial support, business mentor, and friend was gone. She realized that it was more important than ever to create a safe space.
“I always try to think, ‘What would John do in this situation?’ How is it that John was a thriving gay man in SLC that came out 50 years ago, yet today in Provo, youth are taking their lives? I felt like we were going backwards, ” says Stephenie.
She realized that when family and religion reject a person for their sexual identity, they get stuck. She knew that she needed to include the family, especially during the vital years of development.
Despite the tragedy of losing John, Stephenie pushed forward. John had left Stephenie $100,000, and Barbara and Steve Young also donated $100,000. When they started renovating the house, they had 250 people from the community show up to help out, including LDS bishops and BYU professors. Companies also got involved and donated services like HVAC and painting. Additionally, when they launched their website asking for donations, they received $30,000 within the first three days. This confirmed Stephenie’s belief that the community was ready for Encircle.
It took eight months to renovate the house, and Encircle became a 501c3 nonprofit.
The name Encircle is about expanding our circles of love within ourselves, within our families, and within our communities. Their slogan is “No sides, only love, ” and their whole philosophy is around love, acceptance, and no judgment.
“The idea is to meet people where they are, ” says Stephenie. “To let people say their biases about how they feel with their child coming out, and have someone sit with them and love them nonjudgmentally so they can be supported. ”
Special care was taken in creating a home where the youth, parents, and the community would feel comfortable. Stephenie shares, “We want people to understand that these kids are classy, worth investing in. We want the youth to feel valuable and have something they can be proud of.”
The first Encircle house opened on Valentine’s Day 2017. There was great attendance at the open house, and within a few weeks, around 50 youth were visiting each day. Parents were slower to come, but with time, they got involved. Encircle started with one therapist, and within a year, they had 15 therapists, providing nearly 500 sessions per month.
Encircle expanded into Salt Lake City on Valentine’s Day 2019 and opened a house in St. George a few months ago. They also plan on opening three more houses within a year.
Encircle relies heavily on volunteers for two reasons. First, they are a nonprofit with limited finances. Second, when somebody volunteers to assist at Encircle, it send a clear message to the youth that they are being supported by people who want to be there. It shows that they are loved and supported by people in the community, which tells them that maybe their community does love them as they are. The reasons why people volunteer are as varied as the volunteers themselves. During volunteer training, each person is asked why they are there. Some have family who are LGBTQ+. Some are in religious positions of authority and want to better understand. Some have lost friends. Some just want to serve.
Encircle provides many services, including therapy, friendship circles, parent programs, speaking series, educational materials, and art/music/writing groups. More importantly, it provides a safe space where LGBTQ+ teens and young adults can be themselves. The friendship circles allow them to talk openly and honestly about the challenges they are facing and to realize that they are not alone.
“I believe that everyone is doing their best with what know,” says Stephenie. “I have also seen that the internal struggles that these youth have gone through has made them amazing and wise.”
Through the example and support of her loving gay uncle, John Williams, Stephenie’s life was changed forever. Creating Encircle and supporting LGBTQ+ teens and families has been rewarding for Stephenie and her family and has shown how the community truly cares. More importantly, it is saving lives and providing a safe, loving space for inclusion.
For more information or to donate to Encircle House, please visit encircletogether.org
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