When Stephenie Larsen and a band of volunteers opened an LGBT support center in Provo across the street from a Mormon temple, she thought it could be picketed, or worse — but the place, called Encircle, was an instant hit.
Now — a year later — Encircle is coming to Salt Lake City, where the same emphasis will be on providing a place where families and their LGBT loved ones can find support, therapy and a sense of community.
They plan to open the new space this spring or summer at 331 S. 600 East. A plan for renovation makes the exact date of opening uncertain.
Larsen, a Brigham Young University graduate and Provo resident, launched Encircle last February in an effort to combat Utah’s astonishing suicide rate of teens and 20-somethings. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Utahns ages 15 to 24 and the rate of suicides in that group is increasing four times the national average, she explained. And LGBT youths are three times more likely to commit suicide than their straight counterparts.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 150 Utahns ages 10 to 17 died from suicide from 2011 through 2015.
Of some 800 LGBT people from all along the Wasatch Front who came through the support center during December, none has committed suicide, she said.
“They come [to Encircle] and find they aren’t alone,” Larsen said Friday. “I think the connection is keeping these kids alive.”
Since the Provo center opened, Larsen said that discussing sexual orientation in Provo is getting easier.
“We are having better conversations with people,” she said. “It helps us discuss what it means to be Christlike to other people.”
Nonetheless, Encircle’s entry into the America’s Freedom Festival Parade in July was cut just hours before the group was planning to march in the Independence Day celebration in Provo.
Encircle’s emphasis is on love for all religions and races, no matter the sexual orientation, said program director Jordan Sgro. As a BYU graduate, she said she knows what it’s like to be told you don’t belong.
“We tell everyone they are welcome at Encircle,” she said.
The Provo center, housed in the historic William D. Alexander House, 91 W. 200 South, is a hive of activity and offers some kind of program every evening, Sgro explained, including friendship circles, speakers who provide a role model for LGBT youths, music, art and “tools to survive.”
The nonprofit operation also provides therapy for up to 125 young people per week.
Larsen hatched the plan to create a support system for LGBT youths and their families with Salt Lake City restaurateur John Williams, who was murdered by his estranged husband in May 2016. She most likely would not have met Williams if he were not part of her husband’s extended family, she explained.
“I thought being gay was a sin,” she recalled. “I got to know John and all that fell away.”
The Salt Lake City center will be supported, in part, by the John Williams Foundation and will be called the John Williams Encircle House.
Jacob Dunford, 22, is in charge of Encircle’s communications efforts and website and said Encircle provides a community for gay youths, as well as their families.
“My family had to choose between myself and their church,” he said. “What my family needed when I came out was a community, but they didn’t have one.”
Dunford said Salt Lake City is a natural place for Encircle because it is the world headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is against acting on same-sex attraction.
David E. Hardy, a Salt Lake City attorney who is the director of development for Encircle and the father a gay man, said he, too, wishes that Encircle had been around when his son came out.
“It would have made things much easier.”
Other communities have expressed interest in Encircle, Hardy noted. It has gotten national attention for its focus on families.
For more information on the organization, visit www.encircletogether.org.