Where are they now? Catching up with some of Starbucks ‘Upstanders’

Collage of four headshots of individuals featured in story

In 2017, Stephenie Larsen, Hansel Tookes, Chad Hauser and Ian Manuel were part of a series on ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Find out about the amazing work they’ve done since.

Five years ago, to help counter the divisiveness happening in the United States, Starbucks launched a series of stories and videos highlighting the people who bring us together. The series, which stretched over two seasons, was called “Upstanders” and featured ordinary people doing extraordinary things to create positive change in their communities. Several years ago, we checked in on some of the people featured in the first season. Today, we’re bringing you stories of what’s happened to some of those featured in the second season in the years since.

When Starbucks set out to explore what it meant to have courage in America, we found one answer in an eclectic, two-story, blue-and-white house in Provo, Utah. The refurbished, century-old building had just opened as a resource center for young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning their sexuality or gender.

The unexpected force behind it was Stephenie Larsen, a mother of six who grew up in the Provo area. Like most of her neighbors, Larsen is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose leaders forbid same-sex relationships. What spurred her to create Encircle, as the center is named, was hearing heartbreaking stories of gay Mormon kids driven to suicide after being rejected by their families.

Larsen had no idea how her community would respond to an LGBTQ+ center a block from Provo’s Mormon temple. The story of how she summoned the courage to act anyway was part of the second season of the “Upstander” series — told in film, written and podcast form — about real people making a difference. Here are updates on Larsen and three others showcased then. The work they were doing continues to flourish and expand — even through a pandemic.

Angels in Provo

Back in 2017, Provo surprised Larsen in the best possible way.

“The things that I feared — that people wouldn’t like what we were doing — have been really the opposite,” she said. “People come in and volunteer their time and money and their hearts to these kids. We see the best in people every day.”

Today, Encircle has been so successful that there are now additional centers in Salt Lake City and St. George and a fourth opening soon in Heber City. (The tradition of distinctive historic buildings continues as well.) Three more are in the planning stages for expansion into Arizona, Nevada and Idaho.

Encircle blue house exterior, with large group of smiling LGBTQ+ youth posing in front.
Encircle Provo

Said Larsen, now 50, “We stumbled onto something that was needed, and the approach works.”

The approach — what makes Encircle unique — is that the center welcomes not just teens and young adults but their parents, families and others in the community. Encircle’s motto is, “No Sides. Only Love.”

“No one wants to choose between their child and their religion,” Larsen said. “Encircle gives people a safe space to come in and talk about their fears, their beliefs, and to find other parents who have gone through the same thing.”

If Larsen showed courage in opening the center, each LGBTQ+ person and each family member who walk through its doors does too.

Then in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to upend everything that Larsen and her team had accomplished. If the houses shut down, what would happen to all the young people who needed a safe space?

Larsen knew in a heartbeat that she couldn’t let them down.

Stephenie smiling, wearing blue sweater, posing with cheek resting in hand
Stephenie Larsen

So over the course of a single weekend, her staff — whom she describes as “young LGBTQ people who are just brilliant” — moved all of the programs online, including 28 hours a week of therapy via Zoom.

The online work-arounds proved so successful that Encircle plans to keep some of them going even now that the physical spaces have reopened. Going online made it easier to reach kids in rural areas — and a lot of Utah is rural. And to Larsen’s surprise, parents’ groups that ordinarily drew 20 to 30 people per session reached 100 at a time online.

“I don’t know if it was easier for parents to get there, or if it were more possible to stay anonymous,” she said, “but we’ll always keep some programs online now.”

In the beginning, Larsen had thought she would get Encircle started and run it until the nonprofit board could afford to hire someone to take her place. But it has become her — and her family’s — passion. She is grateful to be able to model for her own children what hard work and devotion to a cause can accomplish.

“When you see kids walking in the door of Encircle with their heads down, and then a few weeks later they’re talking and laughing, it’s wonderful,” she said. “It almost feels like there are angels behind it.”

Maybe that’s because there are.

Beyond a needle exchange

Hansel Tookes was a medical student at the University of Miami when he set out to do the impossible: convince Florida’s conservative legislature to allow a needle-exchange program for people who inject drugs.

Curing addiction is hard, as anyone who has struggled or watched a loved one struggle knows. Exchanges aim to at least reduce some of addiction’s harmful consequences by preventing life-threatening infections spread by reusing dirty needles. But it’s controversial in circles that favor no tolerance.

It took four years to win approval for a single site — and Tookes then had to raise the money to operate it. He did.

“They probably passed it just to make me go away,” Tookes said, looking back at his years of perseverance. “But I came back!”

Hansel smiling in black shirt, tie and dark pants, standing in front of IDEA Exchange van.
Hansel Tookes

When the exchange opened, Starbucks paid a visit to Miami to tell a story about his efforts.

Today Tookes, 40, is an internist and researcher who focuses on primary care for people living with HIV — one of the deadly infections that can spread through shared needles. He still works with Miami’s needle exchange.

He also teaches at his old medical school, where his students are following in his footsteps. In 2019, they lobbied for and won expansion of needle exchanges throughout the state.

 “Watching my students pass this legislation, I thought, ‘Wow, this is the peak,’” he said.

Actually, it was just one peak.

Another occurred this spring, when Tookes received a $2.3 million National Institutes of Health grant to use telehealth to reach people who inject drugs.

Tooke sees it as a tool to reach people on Miami’s meanest streets. People who inject drugs are used to feeling marginalized, especially if they are people of color or homeless or both. They are wary of hospitals and clinics.

So Tookes wanted to bring care to them. In 2018, using a small grant, he bought iPad tablets and sent outreach workers into the community to teach people how to use them, tapping into WIFI hot spots at the exchange and other sites.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and everything shut down — except for the pilot telehealth system Tookes had put in place.

“I could still see my patients in their homes or on the streets,” he said. “In this scary time, we felt so connected.”

When the vaccines became available, Tookes felt an obligation, especially as an African American physician, to be of service. He thought about his baby daughter, born in October and named Paula for his late mother.

“I was really concerned with uptake in the minority community, in the Black community,” he said. “I had to think about what I would say to Baby P one day. What did your daddy do during the pandemic? Baby P would want to know I was pushing for vaccine equity.”

And then there was his late grandmother, Gracie Wyche, the first African American head nurse at Miami’s Veterans Affairs hospital. In the 1980s, she treated some of the first mysterious illnesses that would become known as AIDS.

So Tookes decided to set a very public example. He bared his arm for his shot in front of a phalanx of newspaper and television cameras.

Early this year, he was sitting in his office looking at a poster on his wall that included photos of his grandmother and other pioneering African American nurses. His phone rang.

The caller announced herself as Mrs. Thelma Gibson, the woman who was in that poster right next to his grandmother.

“She was calling to thank me for all the work I had done in pushing vaccine equity,” Tookes said. “I felt like my mother and grandmother in heaven were calling me to tell me I was doing the right thing.”

That was a peak, too.

Changing juvenile justice, one meal at a time

When chef Chad Houser walked away from one of Dallas’ trendiest restaurants in 2015 to open a café staffed by former juvenile offenders, his friends in the culinary world thought he had lost his mind.

Instead, he found his calling. Today he’s expanding Café Momentum nationwide.

Chad smiling, standing with arms folded and ankles crossed, leaning against window in front of café
Chad Houser

A 2017 “Upstanders” story told how it all started when Houser volunteered to teach ice-cream making in a juvenile detention center. He shared his students’ surprise and delight when they won a competition. Then he couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen to them when they got out.

More than 40 percent of young offenders wound up back in jail within three years of release, according to a Texas legislative board. Houser started Café Momentum to break that cycle.

Besides paid on-the-job training, Cafe Momentum offers case managers to help with housing, budgeting, anger management and other life skills; in 2019, it added an on-site school. When Starbucks last wrote about Houser, just 15 percent of the 469 young men and women he had helped to that point had gone back to jail.

Today, more than 1,000 have completed the intensive one-year internship. The reconviction and re-adjudication rate over the last 12 months was zero.

“They’ll rise to the expectations set for them as long as we give them the tools and opportunities to do so,” Houser said.

In partnership with the National Football League, Houser began laying plans to take those tools and opportunities to other cities. He scouted locations, hosting a pop-up dinner in Nashville before the 2019 NFL draft and another in Miami before the 2020 Super Bowl.

Then the pandemic hit.

Back in Dallas, the café’s chief operating officer told Houser that they had to shut the restaurant down. To Houser, that was unthinkable. “We can’t,” he replied. “We need to provide income, resources and stability for the kids.”

Luck was with him. An email arrived from a parent in the local school district. With schools on the brink of closing too, hundreds of students who depended on free lunches would go hungry. Did Houser have any ideas on how the district could get food to these kids?

Why, yes. He did.

“Seventy-two hours later, we were on it,” Houser said.

With new cleaning protocols in place and COVID-19 tests administered every two weeks, Café Momentum switched from serving award-winning new American cuisine to boxing up shelf-stable meals: 350,000 of them through the end of the school year.

At first, the pandemic didn’t faze the program’s interns. Almost all of them came from neighborhoods where resources — including toilet paper and flour — were always scarce. But then, even their scantily stocked stores emptied. Parents lost jobs. Worse, family members fell ill.

Through it all, Café Momentum paid their salaries and sent them home with food, face masks, cleaning products and hand sanitizer for their households. 

When Dallas schools re-opened in fall 2020, the café staff stayed busy with painting and repairs. They practiced cooking and serving in masks. Recently, they carefully reopened the restaurant.

Reflecting back, Houser, saw in the pandemic an unexpected blessing.

“I think about how often young people enter our program with copious amounts of hesitation because they don’t trust that we actually care,” he said. “To go through something as intense as a pandemic and to come through on the other side — it was very meaningful to them that we did what we said we would do.”

Meanwhile, expansion plans are moving forward, with the goal of opening restaurants in two new cities for each of the next five years. Nashville and Pittsburgh will come first.

Each will be operated by their community, with support from Momentum Advisory Collective, the parent organization formed to scale the Momentum model.

Although the Dallas restaurant’s made-from-scratch, Southern-influenced menu has won critical acclaim and customer loyalty, that’s not what Houser, 45, aims to replicate. His dream is bigger than that: to replace a system that treats kids like throwaways with one that, in his words, “wraps them in an ecosystem of support and directs them to a life of potential.”

“We’ve been very intentional,” he said, “about positioning ourselves as the new model for juvenile justice in this country.”

‘I am fit for society’

Ian Manuel is a Brooklyn-based writer, a one-time fellow at the prestigious MacDowell artist colony and the author of a just-published memoir. He’s also a passionate advocate for ending solitary confinement for juveniles.

It’s a cause he knows firsthand. He spent 26 years in a Florida prison, 18 of them in solitary.

Now 44, Manuel was 13 years old and growing up in a rough neighborhood in Tampa when he joined a group of older teens on a robbery. On a downtown parking lot, he pointed a gun at a young woman. She screamed. Startled, without thinking, Manuel pulled the trigger.

Miraculously, Debbie Baigrie survived the shot to her cheek. Even more miraculously, she forgave Manuel. When he phoned (collect) from prison to apologize, she accepted his call. They started exchanging letters and forged a friendship that continues today.

Baigrie’s support — and the crusading work of Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson against excessive punishment for children — won Manuel’s release in November 2016. Stevenson’s organization, based in Montgomery, set Manuel up in an apartment there, helped him open a bank account and taught him basic life skills the rest of us take for granted.

Ian's face upturned, laughing, wearing orange turtleneck
Ian Manuel

That was where we left him in the 2017 story about his extraordinary friendship with Baigrie. His progress since then is a textbook example of what the courage to reach out — and to accept that help — can accomplish.

Through the grounding he got from Baigrie and Stevenson, additional help from new friends and his own determination, Manuel made his way to New York, then to MacDowell and a book proposal. His memoir, “My Time Will Come” was published in May.

For all his hard-won success, Manuel doesn’t sugarcoat the challenge of re-entering society after years in prison. There are the day-to-day struggles, like finding a place to rent when you’re a felon and have no credit history.

And then there are the emotional struggles.

“Re-entry is like a rebirthing process,” Manuel said. “I might look like a full-grown adult, but emotionally, maybe I’m just going on 18. My growth was stunted emotionally growing up in that solitary confinement cell.”

Even the COVID-19 pandemic has served as a reminder of how different his experiences have been from those of his new friends and acquaintances. He could not fathom why people were freaking out about being confined to their big houses with their big TVs, where they could step outside whenever they wanted to without even being beaten.

He knew what a lockdown was. He was in one for years. And years. And years.

As strongly as he believes it was wrong to treat him or any teen that way, Manuel does not allow himself bitterness. The mercy showed him by Baigrie cured him of that.

“If anyone had a right to hold on to some bitterness, it was Debbie,” he said.

What got him through those endless years of solitary, what fed his grit and drive, was an ongoing conversation with God. Manuel begged for one more chance and vowed to be successful.

And writing. That kept him going too. Mostly he wrote poetry, some of which is included in his memoir.

“It is my belief that God gives each and every one of us a gift,” he said. “One of my gifts is to compose words in a way that moves people. Neither my grandmother nor my dad could read or write. I could do it as easy as breathing.”

That talent was evident early on in his beautifully written letters to Baigrie from prison. And it’s evident now in a memoir that oh so movingly shows why children should never, ever be sentenced to die in jail.

“In prison, they try to strip you of your identity. They tell you, ‘Manuel, you’re just an inmate.’ ‘Manuel, there’s nothing special about you,’” said the newly published author. “But here I am. Here is the little boy that they said wasn’t fit for society ever again when I was 13. I’ve been out five years, and I am fit for society.”

Ian standing on a bridge, arms outstretched and smiling

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