Having grown up in a Mormon household and later attending Brigham Young University, Stephenie Larsen's views on homosexuality were shaped by her teachings from the church and her education. But after meeting her husband's uncle, who identifies as an openly gay man, her views on the LGBTQ+ community changed.
"Getting to know my husband's uncle, I was like, 'This is the most Christ-like person I've ever met. How is it that I'm judging him for his sexuality?'" Larsen said.
When she moved back to her hometown of Provo, Utah, Larsen said she became deeply concerned with the high suicide rates among LGBTQ+ youth -- especially, she said, because "Provo may be one of the hardest places to grow up LGBTQ."
When Larsen came across a vacant blue house with rainbow glass-stained windows in the heart of Provo, she would go on to turn it into Encircle, an organization that focuses on suicide prevention and providing safe space for LGBTQ+ youth.
Since launching in 2017, Encircle has welcomed more than 30,000 guests each year who are seeking a safe space during after-school hours each weekday.
"Encircle is like a library -- you can walk in and out of it as you please," Larsen, who serves as the CEO, said.
Through its three centers located in Provo, St. George and Salt Lake City, Encircle offers weekly group discussions, therapy sessions with trained counselors and daily programs to help build connections among LGBTQ+ youth, parents and families. For some, it's a place to grab fresh-baked cookies from the kitchen and read a book until they're ready to go home.
"I really love Encircle because it's a place where everyone is welcome," one guest named Chris told "Good Morning America." Another teen said Encircle is "basically my second home at this point."
For others, it's a lifeline.
"It's a safe haven for LGBTQ+ youth who can't be themselves at home, school, in their workplace or even in their community," said Ana Chavarri, Encircle Provo's home director.
Chavarri said the homes are set up to not only make the youth feel welcome but also their parents, who may be slowly coming to terms with having a child who is LGBTQ+.
"They're coming to a place that is more neutral and allows them to feel more comfortable," Chavarri said.
The impact of COVID-19 on LGBTQ+ youth
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Encircle had to close its homes, but continued its programs online until Larsen decided to reopen the homes in November 2020, making sure children and families were practicing social distancing and wearing masks during sessions.
"It was important for many LGBTQ+ youth to get through the cold and sometimes dark winter, especially during the pandemic," Larsen said.
Larsen also touched on a crisis in the LGBTQ+ community during the pandemic, in which many youth lived in households that were not supportive of their sexual and gender identity.
According to a recently published survey from The Trevor Project, a leading suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ youth, 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in 2020, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.
"More than 80% of LGBTQ+ youth said COVID-19 made their living situation more stressful, and only one in three found their home to be LGBTQ+ affirming. So, clearly these were huge challenges that were happening during this pandemic," Amit Paley, CEO of The Trevor Project, said.
Lindsey Dawson, associate director of HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, recently published a survey on the impact of the pandemic on LGBTQ+ community.
"We found LGBT people did experience a job loss within their household at higher rates than non-LGBT people, which could have a wide range of implications for family or an individual -- mental health is certainly one of those." Dawson said.
Encircle plans to open homes in Arizona, Idaho and Nevada. It also hosted summits for Utahans interested in volunteering and visiting one of the locations.
Luke Belnap said he's excited for Encircle to expand to Heber City, Utah, with a new home opening there next year. He visited Encircle's Provo home and described it as "not a house to do whatever you wanted, but be whoever you wanted."
Heber City is not close to any of Encircle's current homes, and Belnap expressed concern that his sexual identity is not accepted in his town. He said he feels having Encircle available in his area is needed.
"We need it really badly. Homophobia is pretty bad here," he told ABC News.
Belnap came out when he was 11 and, four months later, started a Gay-Straight Alliance at his school. His organization received curriculum from Encircle as a guide to helping LGBTQ+ youth and allies work together to create change in the Heber City community.
Luke's mother, Jamie Belnap, has supported him since the day he came out, but said she was concerned about the lack of representation in Heber City and believes Encircle will be able to provide outreach for LGBTQ+ youth who don't receive support from home or school.
"For kids who don't feel safe to come out, this will be a game changer for them," she said.
Encircle is working on creating eight new homes after reaching its goal of raising $8 million earlier this month, thanks in part to a $1 million donation and partnership with Verizon. And earlier this year, Encircle received a $4 million donation from the combined efforts of Apple's Tim Cook, who is openly gay, Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, and Imagine Dragons' front man Dan Reynolds. Reynolds also recently donated his childhood home in Las Vegas to Encircle, which Larsen said is currently being renovated.
"We're just grateful for businesses and individuals who have the vision for LGBT youth and their future," Larsen said.
"We want kids to see how valuable they are. The homes do that, it sends a message to everyone that our organization is worth investing in, and most importantly, our children are worth investing in."
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.