BYU senior Jae Collett leaned against the porch railing of Encircle Provo, where they intern several days a week. A row of pride flags fluttered behind them. The Provo City Center Temple across the street was bathed in a midafternoon haze.
“I feel like I wasn’t a crier until I started interning here, honestly,” Collett said.
Collett spends four days a week with LGBTQ+ youth playing games, talking, cooking “family dinners” and facilitating friendship circles. Collett said they’ve been able to show youth — some who don’t think they’ll make it to adulthood — that there is hope in the world.
“I wish I would’ve had a place like this when I was a kid,” they said.
Under the banner “No sides, only love,” the organization provides mental health services and a safe community space for LGBTQ+ youth aged 12 to 25.
The organization reported that it served 61,787 individuals from its opening in 2017 through February 2023.
“It is a resource center, but it’s so much more than that,” Collett said. “Youth come here, and for some of them it’s the only place where their identity is celebrated.”
Youth who start coming to Encircle tend to return multiple times, Collett said. According to Collett, the majority of guests have visited over 20 times.
The historic home has a kitchen, dining room and living room on the ground floor. A grand piano and guitars are available for musical guests. Upstairs, visitors will find office spaces for licensed therapists, an arts and crafts room and a hangout spot for friendship circles.
The house still has its original stained glass windows and wood paneling. Collett said they and other volunteers — several of whom are also BYU students — are responsible for maintaining a safe environment in the house.
In Collett’s view, Encircle is a respite from some of the negative attitudes in Provo toward the LGBTQ+ community. Many of the Encircle’s guests struggle to navigate the relationship between their sexual identity and the values of a deeply religious community, Collett said.
Kathy Christensen, or “Grandma Kathy” to Encircle guests, said she doesn’t see a conflict between her membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and her volunteer work at Encircle.
When her son came out as gay in 1993, Christensen said she told him she wanted to maintain her relationship with him and her membership in the Church. 28 years later, she discovered Encircle and started volunteering.
“No matter who you are, no matter what your sexuality, everybody deserves a hug and everybody deserves to be respected,” she said.
BYU student Madeleine Eliason from Bountiful, Utah said she saw Encircle’s positive impact firsthand when her sister, who is transgender and was transitioning at the time, began spending time at the organization’s Salt Lake City location.
Eliason wanted to pay it forward, and soon found herself in a paid position as assistant director of the Provo location.
“I think it’s important that youth especially have a place where they can feel safe … and learn how to be more authentic in manageable and healthy ways,” she said. “It’s lifesaving.”
Eliason worked at Encircle from 2020 to 2021. Though she no longer holds a formal position there, she said she still tries to be “as involved as possible.”
BYU students can get involved as well, she said. At the Provo location, students and other community members can attend and assist in friendship circles.