Steph Kirk Stephenie Larsen
Stephenie Larsen, a 50-year-old mom of six, is an unlikely LGBTQ activist.
When her parents moved the family to Orem, Utah, they thought sending their kids to the Mormon church would help them fit in. Larsen loved it.
"Anything the Mormon church said, I never questioned," she tells PEOPLE in this week's issue.
But years later she would leave the church and go on to establish Encircle, a network of homes for LGBTQ youth and their families in Provo, Salt Lake City and St. George, with one under construction in Heber City — and more to come in Idaho, Arizona and Nevada. To date, they've helped 70,000 individuals.
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"Here, you are loved no matter who you are, no matter what religion you are, no matter what your sexuality is," says Larsen, who sees Encircle as "a spiritual type of family, rather than a conditional family."
It wasn't the path she originally planned. After graduating from Brigham Young University, she went to Washington to work for a conservative congressman and a lobbying group that opposed gay marriage.
Starbucks Encircle's Provo, Utah location
Next was San Antonio, where her husband, Mitch, toiled away on his medical residency while she focused on raising their first two kids. She felt the strain of his long hours.
"I never saw him," she says. "I was lecturing him like, 'Why aren't we going to temple? Reading scripture?' He said, 'I'm going to be honest: I don't believe it.' "
That sparked a 10-year deep dive into her faith, and the family decided to leave the church.
For more on Stephenie Larsen's mission as an LGBTQ advocate, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.
By then they'd moved back home to Utah, and she felt ostracized — more than 60 percent of the population in the state identifies as Mormon, a faith that firmly believes acting on same-sex attraction is a sin. She recalled how Mitch's uncle John Williams had shared his experiences of being gay.
"John told me that when he was a teenager, he would have done anything not to be gay," she says.
courtesy Stephenie Larsen The late John Williams with Stephenie Larsen in 2015
In college he had suicidal thoughts, until he finally came out to his family.
"They were just like, 'John, we love you. You're awesome. Go be you,' " Larsen says. "He didn't spend years trying to get his mom or his siblings to love him — he just got to move forward and become all that he was."
About that time she also learned that for teens in Utah, suicide is the leading cause of death; LGBTQ kids are especially at risk. Understanding what it felt like to be an outsider in her community, she called Williams, telling him, "I think Provo might be one of the hardest places to grow up LGBTQ."
She had the idea of opening a center to help LGBTQ youth. Williams promised to kick-start the project with $100,000 but had one mandate: No strip malls.
"He said, 'This has to be a place that feels like home, so that when people who don't feel at home anywhere else have a place they can come and feel loved,' " Larsen recalls.
When she thought she found the perfect place, she video-called Williams. He loved it — until he saw the view across the street: the Mormon temple.
"He said, 'No way. Most of these kids won't be out yet. They need a place where no one will know they're going,' " Larsen remembers.
But she held firm.
"I said we need to love and support the kids, but we have to get their parents to come along. If you grow up in a community where you feel judged and misunderstood, you have to leave," says Larsen.
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They forged ahead. A call for volunteers on Facebook brought 40 people the first day, 100 the next, then 150, and included teens, parents, even a Mormon bishop. Once the home opened, they began offering music and art classes, a place to cook, service projects and counseling. By the end of the year, they were providing 500 therapy sessions a month.
Sadly, Williams never saw the home open. Two months after Larsen found the Provo house, he was tragically killed.
"At first I thought, I cannot do this without him," Larsen says. "Then literally people came to my door and said, 'We heard; we're here to help.' "
That community helped complete the Provo house. And while critics have argued that Encircle spends too much on renovations, Larsen isn't deterred: "We want to show kids they're worth investing in."
Larsen, who today "loves trying to find God on my own terms," is proud of the work, but she also feels the burden.
"Sometimes, I'll walk in one of those homes and see 60 kids who are very vulnerable. A lot of them don't have support from their parents," she says. "You see a lot of beautiful things, but you see a lot of pain. It's nerve-racking. But then you think, where would these kids be if they weren't here? And you commit to work harder."
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.