The Encircle location in Heber is now open — and it has historical roots

The Utah nonprofit Encircle opens its fourth house, a gathering place for queer youth and their families.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jordan Sgro, executive director of Encircle, at the nonprofit's new Heber City house, on Thursday, June 8, 2023.

Heber City • Ferris Judd, 14, said he and his family regularly go to Provo — a 40-minute drive from their home in Heber City — to hang out at the Encircle house there.

The news that Encircle, the Utah-based nonprofit that supports LGBTQ+ youth, has opened a house in the conservative Wasatch County city “means a lot to all the kids in Heber.”

“There are a lot of kids in schools who are just horrible,” Judd said. “It’s nice to know that there’s just a little place where you can just be comfortable and not have to worry about people misgendering you or being rude to you and stuff like that.”

Judd said he’s excited to meet new people at the Heber home, which had its grand opening on June 10. Meeting and bonding with people, he said, was the best part of going to the Provo house.

Encircle’s new house, at 81 E. Center St. — originally the Abram Hatch House, and until recently a Zions Bank branch — is called the Collin Russell Home. It’s named for a young man who grew up gay in Heber City. An ornate portrait of Collin hangs in the entryway.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Encircle's new Heber City house, the former Abram Hatch House and once a Zions Bank branch, on Thursday, June 8, 2023.

According to Callie Birdsall-Chambers, a marketing and communications executive with Encircle, Collin knew when he was 12 that he was gay — and he confided that information only to his older sister, Emma.

“He grew up in the [Latter-day Saint] faith, and so they didn’t know how to navigate that,” Birdsall-Chambers said. “They wished they had had the tools to know how to help Colin.”

Collin died on Dec. 26, 2018, of an accidental drug overdose, according to his obituary. He was 23.

“The whole family wished they had had resources, and [that] Collin had a space when he was younger, like Encircle, to go to,” Birdsall-Chambers said, “because they know that he would have just loved this space, and connected with everyone.”

Emma and her husband, Isaac Westwood, bought the naming rights to the Encircle house, Birdsall-Chambers said.

The Westwood family has a history in Heber. “Isaac’s mother is the great-great-granddaughter of the Wall family who settled Heber,” Birdsall-Chambers said. (There’s a statue in Heber of William Madison Wall, a Latter-day Saint pioneer who led construction of a road through Provo Canyon to the Heber Valley in the 1850s. The town of Wallsburg, a 13-mile drive south of Heber, is named for him.)

The house’s music room is dedicated to Isaac Westwood’s uncle, Michael Westwood, who lived in Provo at the base of the “Y” mountain, and died in 1994, at age 33, from AIDS. Michael was widely accepted by his family, Birdsall-Chambers said, so Isaac grew up with the idea of accepting everyone — something Isaac and Emma wanted to share with the Heber community.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A portrait of Collin Russell at the entryway of Encircle's new Heber City house — the Collin Russell Home — on Thursday, June 8, 2023.

Touring the house

Outside the Collin Russell Home, a rainbow walkway — painted in the shades of the progress Pride flag — greets visitors entering the grand building.

“There’s a lot of small, subtle details that we have in each home,” Birdsall-Chambers said.

The moldings feature circles, encircled by more circles — evoking the group’s name, and the idea of someone being surrounded by a circle of support.

“Everything we do in here is really attention to detail,” Birdsall-Chambers said — about making it more accessible to families who are at a loss for how to provide for a child that just came out or those who don’t know what to expect from a LGBTQ resource center.

“They walk in these doors and the first thing we just hear every time is, ‘It’s so beautiful. It’s not what I thought it would look like. It looks like a home,’” she said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Executive director Jordan Sgro at Encircle's new Heber City location on Thursday, June 8, 2023.

The house isn’t covered in rainbows, contrary to stereotypes. The interior features a calming color scheme of light blue, white and black. The house’s original woodwork is maintained, including the staircase, which they painted. The large windows help fill the place with daylight.

The Michael Westwood music room has important details, said Jordan Sgro, Encircle’s executive director. One of them is a commissioned art piece depicting Oregon’s Cannon Beach, a place Westwood loved, and original seashell tiles on the fireplace — tying together the historic home’s past and present.

The house contains several Friendship Circle Rooms, where support groups — categorized by age and identity — can meet and hang out.

In one room, expressive black-and-white portraits of LGBTQ+ youth, taken by photographer Maxwell Poth, are displayed; many of the youth are from Utah. (There’s also a statue of a black sheep, something each Encircle House has. The sheep is named by kids who come there. The kids dress it up for holidays.)

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Photographs of famous personalities at Encircle's new Heber City location on Thursday, June 8, 2023.

In another room, the portraits are of famous people who identify as LGBTQ+ — among them Frida Kahlo, Elton John, Freddie Mercury and former Utah State Sen. Derek Kitchen — to show kids that people like them exist, and are known and respected. In this room, a framed drawing by a child sits on the window sill, with rainbow letters below that read “This is home.”

All the artwork in the building is done by local artists, Birdsall-Chambers said, and can be purchased — with a portion of the proceeds going to both the artist and Encircle.

The art room is one of the most popular rooms, she added. It’s used for art therapy, with supplies donated by Encircle’s partners.

Upstairs, the rooms are dedicated to therapy. There’s a reading nook with books in a case, their binding colors arranged to symbolize a rainbow as more books fill out the shelves. The books in there now include “This Book Is Gay,” “David Bowie Made Me Gay” and “Felix Ever After.” One seating area includes original stained glass windows.

Across Encircle’s four homes — the organization’s first house in Provo, opened in 2017, and houses in Salt Lake City and St. George — the group has 14 therapists conducting 500 sessions a month, Sgro said.

“It’s really important to us that we offer a holistic approach, so that it’s not like a clinic where you’re in and out for therapy, and then you leave,” she said.

In one room, a window seat overlooks the backyard, and the Jennifer Barber Memorial Garden. Barber was co-owner of Pop Park City, a decorative balloon company and, Sgro said, an ally who often donated her balloon creations to Encircle events. Barber died in a car crash on July 7, 2022, at age 51. Barber’s daughter created the balloon display for the Heber house’s grand opening.

Work isn’t done, though, with construction wrapping up on the side of the house, removing what used to be a Zions Bank drive-thru.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The black sheep in Encircle's new Heber City location on Thursday, June 8, 2023.

Picking the right spots

The decision to open an Encircle location, Sgro said, is quite deliberate. The organization assesses how supportive local government or schools are to LGBTQ+ youth, and they make a habit of building their houses in conservative locations.

“Heber is historically a very conservative area where there just are very few to zero resources for LGBTQ youth,” Sgro said. “There’s not a collective space for youth here that’s ever existed. … It felt important that we put our roots down here.”

According to July 2022 U.S. Census data, 29.5% of Wasatch County’s population and 23% of neighboring Summit County’s population are under the age of 18. Before opening in Heber, according to Sgro, an average of 6% to 10% of Encircle’s guests came from Wasatch County, and between 2% and 5% of guests came from Summit County.

Sgro, who grew up in Las Vegas, moved to Utah to attend Brigham Young University. While at BYU, she said, she realized she was gay, and started dating the woman who is now her wife.

Sgro said she attended an event where Stephenie Larsen, Encircle’s founder, spoke about the idea of starting an LGBTQ community in Utah. The notion was crazy, Sgro said, because she was convinced that “me and my wife were the only lesbians in Utah.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Executive director Jordan Sgro at Encircle's new Heber City location on Thursday, June 8, 2023.

Sgro volunteered to build Ikea furniture for the Provo house, and later became one of Encircle’s first employees.

Encircle is continuing to expand in Utah, Sgro said. Construction in Ogden has ramped up again, and a location in Logan will follow. She said plans to put a house in Rexburg, Idaho, where BYU-Idaho sits, have been put on hold.

Sgro said the group can’t worry about negative feedback or possible threats when they build a house. “The unfortunate reality is that every LGBTQ organization is thinking about that, just the state of affairs we’re in. This is happening across the country,” she said.

Efforts in Republican-dominated legislatures have pushed bans on gender-affirming care for minors, prohibitions on people to use bathrooms that match their gender identity, so-called “Don’t Say Gay” laws that block mentioning LGBTQ+ subjects in schools, and moves to keep trans girls from competing in high school and even college sports.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Encircle's new Heber City location on Thursday, June 8, 2023.

The Human Rights Campaign, the national LGBTQ+ advocacy group, recently declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ people. HRC posted a guide of which states are safe for queer people and which ones aren’t, based on recent legislation.

Utah enacted a ban on gender-affirming care for minors in January. In 2022, the Utah Legislature passed a ban on trans girls playing high school sports; it’s being blocked in court. In June, lawmakers pushed UTA to remove a rainbow-wrapped bus from the Utah Pride Parade, and Gov. Spencer Cox issued a proclamation of Pride Month that cut out “LGBTQ+” in all references.

Even with such setbacks, Sgro said, Utah has come a long way. When the first Encircle house opened in Provo, she said, four people came every day. That number is now up to 60.

“We shouldn’t stop here,” Sgro said, adding that it’s important to “advocate for yourself and other people, even though we have this. …

“Our youth deserve a place like Encircle,” Sgro said. “I just don’t think these youth are used to feeling, like, ‘Oh, something was made for me.’ … They just aren’t used to feeling like they matter, [that] they’re prioritized and loved.”