Stephenie Larsen and Andrea Smardon have each found their own way to help others cope with challenges. Their work intersected last fall when Andrea produced and reported a story about Encircle, Stephenie’s LGBT outreach center in Provo, Utah, for NPR.
The NPR story highlights the odd juxtaposition of Encircle’s new center located within sight of the Provo Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, noting that in the fall of 2015, the Church implemented a new policy toward married gay couples and their children that excludes them from full participation.
Stephenie sees an urgent need for helping the LGBT community in densely Mormon Provo. “Utah has the fifth highest rate of youth suicide nationwide, with LGBTQ youth who experience rejection from their parents having an eight times greater risk of suicide. Those that are LDS experience even greater depression, suicidal ideation and family alienation, often losing their faith and spiritual community along the way.”
Andrea produced the NPR story while working on her new, long-form podcast she called “Changing our Stories.” The podcast is about making meaningful change. The episode on Encircle will be released soon.
Andrea explains her motivation for leaving her long-term job with KUER, the NPR affiliate at the University of Utah. “This is a time of incredible change. From a warming climate to social and technological change, we’re all trying to adapt. We need stories to help us process all of this. Stories help define us. They connect us with a shared understanding and serve as a guide to where we are headed.”
She notes that the news we generally read, see and hear is not up to the job of helping us cope. “Many of us are bombarded with news and information all day long, but those stories are not adequate to the task of making meaning from our lives. In the 24- hour news cycle, much is lost. I think we start to forget about parts of ourselves, our history, and our potential. We need something more nourishing. People are hungry for something more, starving really.”
Andrea could see the need for more discussion about the the LGBT community in Utah County where suicides are such a problem. While some have questioned the connection to rising suicide rates in Utah, especially in Utah County, Andrea was interested in Stephenie’s work with Encircle to address the problem head on.
Encircle is setting up operations in a beautiful, old home the organization is restoring adjacent to the Provo Temple. What goes on inside that home is what will give it significance
Inside, Encircle is doing something new and different, Stephenie says. “What’s revolutionary about our approach is that we do not just serve LGBTQ youth, but also their families. We do this because research shows that youth are nine times less likely to commit suicide if their family is affirming. We also hope that better-educated families will influence attitudes in our community.”
Encircle’s story fits Andrea’s podcast perfectly. “I’m finding people who are figuring out how to make change, small and large acts of ingenuity or bravery,” she says. “I’m looking for those stories that can help guide the way for all of us. I’m not talking about how someone lost 50 pounds in a month or invented the next addictive app. I’m talking about the kinds of changes that might help preserve us as a species or at least live fuller lives while we’re here. Every episode on the podcast is a story of personal transformation. Because that’s what I need to hear right now, and I’m pretty sure you do too.”
Every story of change includes challenges. In fact, it may be the hurdles people have to clear that make the stories meaningful.
Stephenie says money is her biggest challenge. “Raising enough money to renovate a house and run a project like Encircle is a huge undertaking. A lot of the fears I had about individuals not wanting us in downtown Provo have proven to be the opposite. We have experienced nothing but positive responses and an outpouring of love.”
Andrea faces her own challenge now that she’s on her own. “I no longer have a radio station and a ready audience for my work, so I have to figure out how to reach people. Anyone can post a podcast on iTunes, but getting heard is another matter,” she says. “I believe there is an audience out there that wants what I have to offer, but the challenge is connecting with them.”
Stephenie has a similar challenge. “We aspire to reach those outside our geographic area by putting information online,” she says.
Stephenie worries more, however, about not being able to change the hearts of people who refuse to have the discussion–but should. “We value spiritual connections and understand it oftentimes influences individuals’ openness to LGBTQ equality. We are limited by people’s willingness to consider issues affecting LGBTQ individuals with openness, and cannot change attitudes of those who will not come to the center.”
Andrea visited the center and spoke face-to-face with Stephenie and others for her story. That’s her model. She doesn’t work over the phone. She explains, “I’m telling intimate stories, and many of them would not work as well over the phone. I’m based in Utah, and most of my stories – at least for now – are about people here. I think these kinds of stories would appeal to people across the country and the world.” She hopes her geographic limitations won’t limit her audience.
Setting aside the challenges and limitations to peer into the future, Stephenie sees a big change resulting from her work. “We envision our community as a place where sexual and gender minorities feel valued and respected—where they do not feel inferior or defined by their sexuality. We work toward a future where families and congregations will encircle all individuals with love.”
“We will see a drastic reduction in homelessness, suicide, and depression,” she concludes.
Andrea’s vision parallels Stephenie’s. “My main goal is to connect people to one another, to help tell someone’s story in such a way that it changes the way people view their own lives and their place in the world.”
“At a time when the US appears deeply divided, I want to create a space for listening, trust, curiosity, and new possibilities,” Andrea said.
On Thursday, January 19, 2017 at 4:00 Eastern (2:00 Mountain), Stephenie and Andrea will join me for a live discussion about the ways they are working to help people cope with change and challenges. Tune in here (at the top of this article) then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.
More about Encircle:
Encircle: LGBTQ Family and Youth Resource Center is a nonprofit organization that addresses the needs of Utah’s LGBTQ youth and their families, while changing attitudes within the community as a whole. Located in downtown Provo, Utah, the nonprofit center serves as hub to find resources that support the overall well-being of sexual and gender minorities, as well as provide a physical gathering place for families, individuals, and the community to host activities that are safe and enriching. Additionally, Encircle plans to facilitate individual counseling, conflict resolution, and other resources, including providing models of what inclusive homes might look and feel like.
Stephenie and her husband, Mitch, love Utah County and have chosen to raise their six children there. She received a law degree from J. Reuben Clark Law School and is a member of the Utah State Bar. While living in Washington, D.C. Stephenie was an attorney for abused and neglected inner-city children. She then worked on Capitol Hill for both the House Committee for Children, Youth & Family and Utah Congressman Bill Orton. In Washington, D.C. she also worked for the lobbying firm MacAndrew and Forbes. Stephenie has done clerkships with Parsons, Behle and Latimer, Justice Stirba, Senator Orin Hatch and Utah County Guardian ad Litems.
More about Changing our Stories:
Changing Our Stories is a podcast about transformation. Each episode is an intimate, true story about what it takes to make meaningful change. Forged in the Mountain West, it’s a virtual campfire under the stars. In a world where the 24-hour news cycle prevails, this show provides listeners a more expansive view on the human race, to reflect on where we came from, and imagine where we’re headed next.
Andrea Smardon is an award-winning reporter and podcast producer based in Utah. She’s a contributor to National Public Radio, and has worked at public radio stations across the country from Boston to Seattle. She recently left her reporting job at KUER in Salt Lake City to devote herself full time to podcasting and freelancing for national outlets.
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