Encircle founder and CEO Stephenie Larsen speaks during
a press conference at the Silicon Slopes Summit at the Salt Palace
in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. (Deseret News)
Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — An unexpected team of prominent figures in tech, music, sports and politics came together to raise $8 million in eight months to support LGBTQ youth, and now they’re doing it again.
In February, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Imagine Dragons lead singer Dan Reynolds and Jazz owner Ryan Smith appeared on Good Morning America and announced that they were going to raise $8 million to build eight new homes for Encircle, a Utah-based nonprofit that provides safe spaces and mental health services for LGBTQ youth. They met and then exceeded their goal and, with the sponsorship of the Kahlert Foundation, will be building a ninth Encircle house in the southern end of Salt Lake County.
The team, along with former NBA player Dwyane Wade; Domo founder Josh James and his wife, Rayna; Heather Kahlert of the Kahlert Foundation; as well as Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and his wife Abby, announced a new goal of raising $13 million to sustain the 13 Encircle homes for the next few years at a press conference during the Silicon Slopes Summit Wednesday.
“We know it’s a huge ask. We also know that these mental health services are keeping children alive,” said Encircle founder Stephenie Larsen.
The goal of Encircle is to “bring family and community together to enable LGBT youth to thrive,” she explained. And gathering leaders from so many areas shows those youth that they are supported, she added.
Cook said that reaching that goal and starting a new campaign was “another milestone” and “(it) represents another major step forward.”
The Apple CEO came out as gay in a 2014 editorial for Bloomberg Business, saying, “I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.”
Because of his personal experience, Cook says that he sees himself in many queer youth and knows what it’s like to be isolated and lonely.
“It’s not easy when you’re made to feel different because of who you are,” he said. “Slowly, too slowly, we’ve seen that begin to change, especially through the inspiring efforts of Encircle.”
Smith pointed out that Encircle didn’t happen in Utah merely by chance. Utah was a place that needed it and had the people to support it, he said.
The nonprofit currently has homes in Utah, Idaho, Arizona and Nevada, but Smith said “every city in the United States needs an Encircle.”
Wade, also a part-owner of the Utah Jazz, visited the Salt Lake Encircle home before the Wednesday press conference and invited everyone to go in and see the vision. He explained that he stood there as a representative of the Jazz, but he was also there as a parent.
Wade’s daughter Zaya is transgender, and when she approached her parents about it when she was 8 years old, her parents wanted her to live by who she is; but they also “had to do a lot of learning and a lot of listening,” Wade said.
“We’re living in a world where everyone is different and we all have the same goal to be the best version of ourselves,” he continued.
Reynolds told reporters that his wife, Aja Volkman, who is the lead singer of Nico Vega, was a large part of how his eyes were opened up to LGBTQ issues.
“It’s really easy for straight, white, hetero man to skate through life and not have the difficult conversations,” he said. “The strange thing is that it’s really such an easy concept that we’re all fighting for. Our kids are born knowing this.”
Volkman encouraged LGBTQ youth to be who they are because the world needs “the wholeness of you are.”
“We need evolution,” she said. “We need to grow through this.”
Larsen was thrilled when she first saw billboards from tech company Domo in one of the most conservative counties in Utah that read, “Domo loves LGBTQ+ (and everyone else too!).”
The billboards drew strong reactions from the community — both negative and positive.
“I experienced firsthand what a polarizing issue this topic is,” said Domo founder Josh James.
Even people within his own community and company “came in hot” ready to criticize the billboards, James said; but when he didn’t engage, they eventually came to the conclusion on their own that it does make sense to spread love to vulnerable youth. Josh and Rayna James donated $1 million dollars to Encircle’s February campaign.
Gov. Spencer and Abby Cox also spoke about how children are born with the inherent ability to love people. They raised their children in a rural, conservative community; however, their children still learned this and brought home their LGBTQ friends. One day when Cox came home to a house full of kids and Abby said, “I think we have every color of the rainbow in that room.”
“It was an awesome feeling to see those kids interact,” Cox said, citing data that shows that even one person who accepts someone who comes out decreases suicide rates among LGBTQ youth drastically.
And Encircle is providing that kind of support, he added.
“(Encircle) is the best of Utah,” he said.