It was the summer of 2017 when a small community in Utah watched in horror as 11 people took their own lives in 11 days.
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One after the other, the state had been struck with a wave of LGBTQ suicides, shaking the queer and transgender community to its core.
"These are the kids who feel like God doesn’t love them, their parents won’t understand, their community won’t understand who they are," local Utah resident Stephanie Larsen explains.
This sense of isolation has only fueled youth suicides in the state.
"Suicide is now the leading cause of death for young people in Utah, andthe suicide rate has tripled since 2007."
Seeing that LGBTQ youth in her own city desperately needed a safe place to go, Larsen founded Encircle, a resource center in Provo, Utah.
"The reason for Encircle is to keep kids alive," Larsen says.
Having watched so many LGBTQ youth take their own lives, Larsen knew something had to give. “[I wanted] to give these kids a safe space to be, so they can grow up and have time to think about 'Who am I? Who do I wanna be?'"
Encircle offers support groups, counseling, speaker series, and most importantly, a sense of affirmation and togetherness to LGBTQ folks in Provo and beyond.
"We can help them have a safe place to be [and] move the community to better understand these kids and their families," Larsen says.
And she believes that this understanding is possible after having lived it herself. It wasn’t that long ago that she herself harbored prejudice of her own. "But life changed, and experiences changed me," she explains.
And as an "all-American Mormon," if change was possible for her, she believes that change can happen in Provo, a city known for being one of the most conservative in the country.
"[We] meet them where they are and help us all progress and become better," Larsen says.
Having only been open six months, the center has already changed lives.
Donna Showalter, whose son Michael is a regular at Encircle, says the center has made a real difference in their lives.
"When I was running for student body president, an account was made about me being gay," he says. "[They said,] 'Whatever you do, don’t vote for Michael Gaywalter. We don’t want our school being run by a f*ggot.'"
This experience terrified Donna, who feared for his life as the harassment escalated.
"There was a time when we were really worried about Michael’s safety," his mother says. "There was always the thought in my mind that he might not come back."
"I would text him, 'Where are you?' And he would say, 'I’m at Encircle,' and I would instantly stop worrying," she says.
"That pit in my stomach would go away instantly. I knew that he was safe."
"I really feel like Encircle literally saved his life," she says.
And this, of course, is what Encircle is all about — creating a space where youth are safe to be their whole selves.
When Larsen created the center, she envisioned a place where LGBTQ youth could show up as they are without having to leave their community and their families.
"We will never tell any of the youth who they should be," Larsen explains. "Our approach is, you need to be who you need to be ... and they need to look inside of themselves and say, 'This is where I will find happiness. And this is where I will be whole and complete.'"
For the 11 LGBTQ people who lost their lives last summer, that’s a wholeness they were never able to find. But in a small house in Provo, Utah — a safe haven in a city that so often feels like a small town — each and every day, there’s a reason for hope.
For the youth of Encircle and the families and friends who love them, nothing is ever easy. But together, they can at least know it’s not a journey they’ll be taking alone.
Learn more about the incredible work happening at Encircle: