New LGBTQ+ youth center opening in Heber City
Nonprofit organization Encircle to bring essential mental health services, support to the Wasatch Back
A rainbow pathway greets those walking up to 81 E. Center Street in Heber City; it’s a welcome sign to many that a friendly face is waiting for them just beyond the black doors.
The historic home was constructed in 1892 and later converted into a bank, but after a three-year effort to bring critical mental health services to LGBTQ+ youth and young adults led by Encircle, it has been restored as a place to gather and build community. The nonprofit organization was founded in 2016 as a way to help lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth in Provo, before expanding to downtown Salt Lake City and St. George.
Now, with its new home in Heber City opening on Saturday, Encircle hopes to bridge the gap to essential services across the Wasatch Back. The location was selected, in part, because of the number of youth commuting from Summit and Wasatch counties to the other sites.
“We try to go for more conservative communities with limited [LGBTQ+] resources,” said Jordan Sgro, the executive director of the nonprofit. “That’s why we started in Provo. There was no singular space to have these hard conversations. Our homes serve as the landing spot.”
Encircle strives to be a “bridge builder” by meeting youth, young adults and their loved ones where they are at. The nonprofit takes a holistic approach, offering affirming therapy for individuals and their families, and programs that encourage them to stay, decompress and socialize.
There are weekly friendship circles, daily programs and drop-in hours for LGBTQ+ people to participate. Small details have been added to the home such as artwork created by queer artists or allies, photographs of successful people in the LGBTQ+ community and portraits of other Encircle youth. This provides a sense of warmth, rather than a cold, clinical feeling, Sgro said.
She added that the nonprofit does not want to disrupt communities. Instead, they want to be a resource for people to learn more about LGBTQ+ people. The Human Rights Campaign, at the start of Pride Month, declared queer Americans are under attack amid anti-LGBT+ legislation and threats of violence nationwide — and in Utah.
More than 100,000 people have been served since Encircle opened its first home in 2017 with 5,000-plus guests and 500 therapy sessions across all homes each month, according to the nonprofit.
And Sgro anticipates a similar demand in Heber City, where she said the middle school has one of the largest Gay-Straight Alliance clubs in the state.
“Some people might just see us as this gay house and wonder what we’re doing in there. But if you come in, we can show you. It isn’t scary,” she said. “It’s about stripping away that fear to ask the hard questions.”
The new Heber home was named in honor of Collin Russell, a gay man who was born in Murray in 1995. Russell’s family belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he faced many challenges in accepting his sexuality. He died of an accidental overdose in 2018.
Emma Westwood, Russell’s sister, and her husband, Isaac, were introduced to Encircle after Russell’s death and felt inspired by the nonprofit’s mission because of the impact it could have had on their families’ lives. Now, they hope the Heber Valley home will help bridge the gap.
The charming, unique character of the historic home wasn’t lost with the recent renovation. Encircle strived to keep many original features of the home, including pale blue seashell tiles adorning a fireplace in the front room, ornate lighting fixtures, detailed woodwork along the stairway and delicate stained glass windows on the second floor, near the therapy rooms.
One new element added to the home is the crown molding signature to Encircle. It depicts a seemingly endless chain of circles encompassing each other and appears in every home.
A wide, open kitchen and dining area are at the forefront of the Center Street location. Sgro said this space is critical to guests as it provides a relaxing atmosphere where friends, family and strangers can share conversation over a meal. Those who look closely might even notice some remaining features from when the building was a bank.
“This is where community is built,” she said. “The kitchen is the heart of the home.”
There’s also an area for visitors to wait with musical instruments and information about another Westwood relative, Michael, who succumbed to the AIDS virus, as well as a cozy room with a large window that hosts various support groups; an outdoor garden space named after Jennifer Barber, a Parkite and LGBTQ+ ally who died in a car accident last July; and an art room stocked with an assortment of supplies.
Guests are encouraged to utilize the space, even if there isn’t a specific class. However, Encircle hosts an art night once a week at each home with a local artist that exposes participants to various styles and mediums.
The programming works by creating social connections among youth and promoting positive emotional experiences. Encircle also creates a space for LGBTQ+ people to be their authentic selves and helps them develop psychological skills like sharing their emotions or countering negative thoughts.
The second floor is a dedicated therapy space with several large rooms to accommodate one person or several. Sgro said therapy, which includes play therapy and services in Spanish, is at the core of what Encircle does. Clients range from youth who have typically come out with parents who are unsure of how to help as well as older people who may be struggling with their identity.
The nonprofit also strives to make services accessible. It accepts a wide range of insurances and offers a grant for eligible clients, which allows them to receive free weekly therapy for six months.
Sgro expects to see many youths and their families during the first few weeks of operations at the new Heber home. However, she expects the mix to vary depending on the day and programming. Some guests arrive as soon as the doors open and stay until closing, while others seek specific classes or activities. There are drop-in hours for people aged 12 to 26 as well as a parents group.
“In a time where the LGBTQ community is used to hearing that they don’t matter, we show them that they do,” Sgro said. “We want these young people to live. Youth walk in and feel like this space is meant for them. It truly becomes their home.”
The grand opening event kicks off at 11 a.m. on Saturday. Encircle will host a ribbon cutting with remarks and provide tours of the home as well as a community carnival.
And although the new home is just opening, Encircle is already starting work on its next location in Ogden. Visit encircletogether.org for more information.
A frequent question we get or myth we hear at the museum is about whether the Town Lift at Park City Mountain Resort used old infrastructure from the Silver King Coalition Mines aerial tramway system.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Park City and Summit County make the Park Record's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.