Almost exactly one year after the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, about 300 people, most wearing hints of rainbow colors, gathered in the dimly lit The Abbey in downtown Orlando.
They were there to both remember the life of victim Christopher “Drew” Leinonen and to mark the start of something new – the official launch of The Dru Project, a nonprofit started in his name to provide curriculums to Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in high schools, as well as award scholarships to LGBT youth.
The Dru Project was started a few weeks after the June 12, 2016, massacre at the Pulse nightclub that left 49 dead, and was spearheaded by a group of Leinonen’s friends, most of whom are UCF alumni.
“We were excited to find something positive to think about rather than just how much we missed our friend,” said The Dru Project President Shawn Chaudhry.
Thirty-two-year-old Leinonen was a two-time UCF alumnus, earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the school, and was a licensed mental health counselor.
Leinonen founded Seminole High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance, so The Dru Project wanted to continue his legacy of helping LGBT youth, Chaudhry said.
The Dru Project hopes to become the parent organization for GSAs, first in Florida and then nationally. The organization is in the process of creating a curriculum with topics and outlines for students in GSAs, many of whom are starting new organizations at their high schools.
“There’s a huge deficit, especially in the state of Florida, when it comes to GSAs, where there isn’t funding or enough education about how to start one,” said Sara Grossman, the organization’s communications director.
The roughly 300 who gathered at the Abbey on June 11 mingled, hugged and cried in an evening that was a mix of grief, hope and humor.
Many of the speakers and attendees spoke of Leinonen’s openness, acceptance and welcoming attitude that made everyone he crossed paths with feel included.
“Chris figured out the secret of happiness: to love and be loved,” Leinonen’s mother Christine said to the crowd.
Vice President of the Dru Project Brandon Wolf called Leinonen his “once-in-a-lifetime person” who taught him lessons about learning to love unconditionally. Many at the event called Leinonen their best friend.
“Drew was one of the most loving people you could possibly meet,” Chaudhry said. “There are at least 100 people who would say Drew was one of their best friends.”
“He had a best friend from college, a best friend from high school – he had a best friend from Tuesday,” Grossman joked.
Three scholarships were also awarded, ranging from $1,500 to $3,000, to local students who had submitted essays explaining how they embodied Leinonen’s spirit and desire for unity and inclusion.
Recent Mount Dora High School graduate Finnian Spencer won the $3,000 scholarship, which he accepted onstage to a cacophony of cheers and applause from the audience. He plans to attend Sante Fe College and then the University of Florida to major in zoology.
“It’s overwhelming to feel so much love and support from the community,” Spencer said about receiving the scholarship.
Like Leinonen, Spencer helped found his high school’s GSA. He said he wanted to make a safe spot for LGBT students who felt like they didn’t have a place to go.
Throughout the evening, the speakers emphasized that they are continuing to fight to be the voice for Leinonen and the other 48 victims, including 22-year-old Juan Ramon Guerrero, Leinonen’s boyfriend and a pre-finance student at UCF.
“If I didn’t raise my voice, Drew would have lost his forever,” Wolf said.
“The killer stole our loved ones, he stole our ordinary, but he will not succeed in destroying our happy,” Christine Leinonen said. “We are turning that grief into good; turning that tragedy into triumph.”