Skip to main content

South Jordan Journal

Herriman and South Jordan teens chat with Gov. Cox, Apple CEO Tim Cook

Nov 09, 2021 12:27PM ● By Karmel Harper

Herriman’s Gavin Wassom and South Jordan’s Melissa Harper join Gov. and first lady Abby Cox, Ryan and Ashley Smith, Dwayne Wade, and Tim Cook along with other Encircle youth in front of the John Williams Encircle house on Oct. 13. (Photo courtesy of Encircle.) 

By Karmel Harper | [email protected]

Gov. Spencer Cox and first lady Abby Cox, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Domo CEO Josh James and his wife Marina, Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds and his wife Aja Volkman, Qualtrics founder and Utah Jazz owners Ryan and Ashley Smith, and NBA All-Star and Jazz co-owner Dwayne Wade met and spent time with two South Valley teens on Oct. 13. 

Along with three other youths from Salt Lake City, Herriman’s Gavin Wassom and South Jordan’s Melissa Harper were joined by Gov. Cox and Tim Cook in a Friendship Circle, or small group discussion, at John Williams Encircle house in Salt Lake City. The teens shared their thoughts and experiences about being LGBTQ+ in Utah. 

Seventeen-year-old Harper said, “While it was scary being so vulnerable around such big names, they were so warm and kind and really listened to us. It was cool that they made time out of their busy schedules to hear us.” 

Gov. Cox said, “It was a group of friends talking and sharing vulnerable things and bonding. Everyone was asked what Encircle means to them. They said connection, comfort, love, and my favorite: family.”

After the Friendship Circle, the teens joined a 45-minute press conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center which was led by Stephenie Larsen, founder and CEO of Encircle, a resource center which provides mental health services and safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth. “The goal of Encircle is to bring family and community together to enable LGBTQ+ youth to thrive,” Larsen said. 

Gathering community leaders who advocate for them shows the kids that they are supported. “It’s incredible what powerful change can happen when we bring tech, government, business, sports, music together...thank you for these leaders for standing by  these kids and telling them that you matter, your life matters, and you have a bright future,” Larsen said. 

Cook, who came out as gay in 2014, said, “Encircle’s mission is very personal to me. Because I see myself in so many of these young people. I understand what it can feel like to be isolated or like you can’t share your truth with anyone else. It’s not easy when you’re made to feel different or less than because of who you are or who you love...but slowly, too slowly, we have seen that begin to change...because of organizations like Encircle. I am so inspired by what Encircle offers to the young people who walk through its doors; not just tolerance but acceptance, not just community but a home, not just kindness but love. These are precious and life-changing gifts...they are gifts that everyone deserves. I am honored to be a part of Encircle.”

Ashley Smith said, “Encircle is about safety. To be a part of providing a safe place for youth to wholeheartedly and openly be themselves is amazing...we feel privileged that we are close to this organization.” 

Ryan Smith added, “Encircle is providing a solution to a challenge that is everywhere in the world...every city in the United States and the world needs an Encircle. We are here to help.” 

Dwayne Wade said, “You have to take the opportunity to visit an Encircle. You have to go in and feel the energy that’s in there...and see the vision [we all] believe in.” Wade’s daughter, who was assigned male at birth, expressed her desire to live her truth as a female when she was 8 years old. Wade said, “I stand here as a representative of the Utah Jazz but also as a father, as a parent...I had to do a lot of learning and a lot of listening...this is what this is about...we need to listen, have empathy and compassion...we are all trying to reach the same goal - to be our best selves in life. I stand here as a proud parent of a beautiful daughter who is a member of the LGBTQ+ community. [Encircle] is groundbreaking...this is special. To be seen and heard is not common.”

Dan Reynolds said “It’s really easy for a straight, white, heterosexual man to kind of skate through life and not have difficult conversations. But it is such an easy concept that we are fighting for. Our kids are born knowing this - that life is about loving. To restrict someone and tell them how they should love does not make sense. I am here because I have had the great honor of meeting our LGBTQ+ youth who are so patient, so kind, so intelligent. I am going to say ‘patient’ twice because they have dealt with a world that is just so behind on the most simple concept of let them love and let others love.” 

Reynolds' wife, Aja Volkman, said, “Live your truth. It’s who you are. We are here to support that. That’s the beauty the world needs. Love needs to be the highest truth.”

Marina James said, “It’s heartbreaking to know we have neighbors and friends who don’t feel supported. Josh and I, along with Domo, look forward to a more accepting and loving world for everyone.” 

When Domo put up billboards in Utah County expressing support for LGBTQ+ youth, Josh James experienced the polarizing effect of this topic. James said, “When we put these billboards up some people loved them and some people hated or were confused by them. Executives and members of the community would sometimes come in hot...and invariably after talking for a few minutes, they would talk themselves into saying, ‘Yeah this makes sense...of course we should be sharing this message.’ That’s what this is about.” 

Utah first lady Abby Cox said, “We had the privilege of learning about LGBTQ+ youth because they were our kids’ friends...they were just part of their circle of friendship. We are grateful for them and for what they teach us. This world is going to be such a better place when they are in charge. We are so excited to be a part of this.” 

Gov. Cox said, “I remember coming home one day and the house was full of kids and Abby said, ‘I think we have every color of the rainbow in that room.’ And it was an awesome feeling to see those kids interacting and the love and friendship they share...there are a lot of really important, powerful, and influential people in this room but no one matters more than these kids that are sitting behind us right now.” 

“We know,” he continued, “and the data is very clear, when a LGBTQ+ child experiences complete rejection, that suicide ideation, suicide attempts, and suicide completions go up significantly. If they receive even one person in their family who accepts them, the rates plunge. That one piece of acceptance changes everything. That’s why Encircle matters. What Encircle has done is provide that piece of acceptance even if—especially if—there is no acceptance anywhere else. The piece of Encircle that I so appreciate is about give parents a place to come in and learn and feel community. And then the community grows and the kids feel acceptance and they stay. We need them to stay to create beautiful things, save others, and make the world a better place.”

Just earlier this year in February, Cook, Reynolds and Smith appeared on “Good Morning America” after collectively donating $4 million to announce that they were going to raise $8 million to build eight new homes for Encircle. That goal was exceeded. Currently there are Encircle homes in Provo, Salt Lake City, and St. George. Additional Utah locations include Heber, Ogden, and Logan. Expansion outside of Utah includes Arizona, Idaho, and Nevada. 

With the sponsorship of the Kahlert Foundation, Encircle will be building a ninth home in the southern end of the Salt Lake Valley. Heather Kahlert, who made the announcement, said, “For too many of our LGBTQ+ youth and young adults who still do not have access to critical mental health services in their communities, our family could not be more proud to partner with such an excellent organization to help all youth in our community feel loved and supported.” 

Larsen said that the location of this ninth home will be built in an area with the highest rate of LGBTQ+ youth suicides in the state.