LGBTQ youth are three times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Forty-eight percent of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt, according to Encircle’s website.

LGBTQ+ Pride flags line the entrances to Weber State University on March 26.
LGBTQ+ pride flags line the entrances to Weber State University on March 26. Photo credit: Weber State University

Because of those statistics, Encircle chooses to bring hope to the Utah community.

A non-profit organization, Encircle follows four core objectives to help LGBTQ youth: authenticity, building social connections, learning emotional and psychological skills and feeling positive emotional experiences.

Stephenie Larsen, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a mother of six from Orem, Utah, and the founder and CEO of Encircle, said she used to think that being gay was a sin.

Over the years, she noticed the prominence of hatred toward the community at church grow, so she felt she had to do something about it.

She came up with the idea in 2016 when she found out that the LGBTQ youth are at a higher risk of depression, suicide and substance abuse than their heterosexual peers.

Soon after, she contacted her uncle, John Williams, who is an entrepreneur, and he helped her build Encircle into what it is today. Currently, he runs the center in Salt Lake City.

Her overall goal with Encircle was to build bridges, whether that’s between religion, politicians, families or friends.

“Being LGBTQ is not an issue that needs to be debated,” Chief Operating Officer Jacob Dunford said. “There are no sides to it. The issue is everyone else who has a problem with us. Being LGBTQ is just 1% of who we are. They are artists, business people, musicians. Please see the whole person as the person.”

WSU put up the display of pride flags in support of the Ogden Encircle home's groundbreaking.
WSU put up the display of pride flags in support of the Ogden Encircle home's groundbreaking. Photo credit: Weber State University

Working since day one, Dunford said that Encircle has promising results from the past three years. Eighty-one percent of the time, those who come to Encircle come 21 times or more.

According to Encircle’s website, more than 70,000 people have been served since 2017. Providing services such as tours of the centers, online and in-person access to their library, friendship circles, daily programs and therapy, Encircle is making a difference for the LGBTQ community, even with the ongoing pandemic.

Dunford said he will often see an LGBTQ child of middle school-age come in with their mother, and they’re both nervous walking in. However, by the end of their visit, the child will feel comfortable, like they feel a sense of belonging.

Executive Assistant of Programs Devin Preston said that, on April 9 at the Salt Lake City location, a 19-year-old transgender man came into the center with his grandma and shared how the pandemic has been on hard on him.

Preston gave them both a tour and informed them about their resources, including the friendship circle going on later that night. Preston was pleased to see the young man at the friendship circle.

Dunford said what he loves about Encircle is that they aim to help LGBTQ youth in middle school and high school in an effort to prevent suicide and homelessness. “And hopefully they’re able to live a badass, thriving, lovely life,” he added.

According to Preston, the four main objectives mentioned previously are applied into everything the center teaches.

“We truly want the youth to feel like they can accomplish anything and be anyone they want to be,” Preston said. “We have no sides, only love for these youth.”

Knowing what it felt like to be an outcast, Preston grew up with two moms. While not fitting in with the LGBTQ crowd or the religious crowd, she had to learn how to belong to herself. That is what motivated her career choice with Encircle — they just felt like family.

“Encircle has been a way for me to find meaning, purpose and a sense of true belonging,” Preston said. “All of the staff, volunteers and guests at Encircle have accepted me for exactly who I am, and have never asked me to change or expected me to be different.”

As part of Encircle’s website, they host friendship circles, which is a virtual way that the LGBTQ community can connect with each other during the pandemic. It is a safe, affirming environment that ensures that participants’ voices are heard.

A session is available to watch on the website, just so viewers know what to expect.

There are friendship circles that are catered toward more specific groups of people, as a way of connecting and relating to each other. Some of those groups include gay male adults, LGBTQ+ young adults and lesbian adults. Friendship circles are hosted every weekday via Zoom.

During the friendship circle video on Encircle’s website, Executive Assistant of Operations Lakshan Lingam said, “We hope we can expose more queer people to more queer people, and we get to talk to each other and make more connections.”

By the end of the video, everyone’s smiles were brighter, and they all reported they were doing better than at the beginning of the recording.

Lingam’s experience of coming out was not a happy time. Living in Provo and not being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, being an LGBTQ member was hard at first, until they found their community and family at Encircle.

“When I first came out, I was not doing too well,” Lingam said. “I was really sad, and I thought I had lost a lot of opportunities. I think my perspective changed as I spent more time at Encircle, and met more queer folks who are older and had already been through it. I started realizing that being LGBTQ is the best part of me. It’s not the only part of me, but it is such a big part.”

Encircle recently held a groundbreaking ceremony for its new resource home in Ogden on March 25. This will be the first home to be built as part of Encircle’s “$8 million, 8 houses” campaign, which began in February. The campaign was made possible after a $4 million total donation from CEO of Apple Tim Cook, Utah Jazz owners Ryan and Ashley Smith, lead singer of Imagine Dragons Dan Reynolds and his wife Aja Volkman.

Weber State University put up a display of pride flags at campus entrances in support of the groundbreaking.

Encircle currently has locations in Provo, Salt Lake City and St. George, with more being built in Heber, Ogden and Logan. Encircle plans to expand to Nevada, Arizona and Idaho as part of their recent campaign.

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