Utah-based LGBTQ nonprofit Encircle has announced plans to build their fourth facility in Heber. Heber was wrapped up in controversy over LGBTQ pride banners flying down Main Street during Pride Month the last two years and Encircle Founder and CEO Stephenie Larsen saw an opportunity to provide support to a community in need.
When Larsen was younger, she probably wouldn’t have thought her career would take her in the direction it has.
A native of Orem and a graduate of Brigham Young University’s undergraduate program and J. Reuben Clark Law School, she says her views on LGBTQ issues were quite different than they are now.
“When I left BYU, I had very, I guess very black and white views about family and about what it meant to be LGBTQ and at the time I probably would have told you that being gay was a sin and a choice,” says Larsen
Larsen moved to Washington D.C. to work on Capitol Hill after graduating and helped write legislation aimed at protecting the ‘traditional family.’
Then, she met her future husband and his uncle, Utah Restauranteur John Williams, who was gay.
Larsen says Williams challenged everything she thought she knew.
“Getting to know John changed all of my views in life, basically,” she says. “Knowing John and realizing that he was one of the most Christ-like people I had ever met made me question how would I ever judge him for his sexuality. I think that the views I had towards traditional marriage and being gay, over a ten year period, changed greatly.”
Williams was tragically killed in a house fire in 2016.
Larsen returned to Utah in the mid-2000s and was alarmed at high suicide rates of LGBTQ youth, which prompted her to found Encircle in 2016. The organization opened their first home in Provo on Valentine’s Day in 2017. They have since opened two other homes in Salt Lake City and St. George and announced a fourth would be coming to Heber in 2021.
Heber was embroiled in controversy over the last two years when LGBTQ pride banners flew down the city’s main street during Pride Month. Many people commended the move and many others condemned it, accusing the city of taking sides on a political issue.
Heber passed a new street-banner policy earlier this year, limiting the content that is allowed on street banners, but leaving the door open for city-sponsored Pride messages in the future.
Larsen says many Wasatch Back residents were already commuting to other Encircle houses and building a facility in Heber was a natural next step.
Encircle provides a safe space for members of the LGBTQ community. The organization also offers weekly programs for parents of LGBTQ youth, as well as art and music classes.
Larsen says all of Encircle’s programs are aimed at promoting good mental health for the LGBTQ community.
“The idea originally was we want these youth to have a place that feels like home, looks like home for so many that maybe don’t feel at home, even in their own homes or at school or church or in their communities,” says Larsen. “We wanted this to be a place where they could feel loved and accepted and celebrated for who they are.”
The Heber facility will be built over the course of the next several months and will cost an estimated $350,000. Larsen says the biggest takeaway she’s seen when opening a new house is how many people come out of the woodwork to support the programs.
“You know, what I think I’ve seen happen around these homes is the community shows up and helps make it all possible,” she says. “I feel like I get to see the best in people every day, people volunteering their time to help serve these youth, parents coming and learning how to be better parents and help their children, volunteers coming to help these kids do homework or make cookies and just let them know that they’re loved.”
To learn more about Encircle and the upcoming house in Heber, click here.