Amid the swirl of an Orlando dance club, with four friends out together on a Saturday night, Drew Leinonen threw his arms around the other three and pulled them close.
“He said, ‘You know what we never say enough? We never say we love each other,'” recalls Brandon Wolf, one of the four friends. “And then he finished by having us all go around and say that we loved each other.”
About 20 minutes later, Wolf and another of the friends had stopped in the bathroom on their way out the door when automatic gunfire broke out. By the time it was over, 49 people had been killed and 53 had been wounded inside Pulse, a gay nightspot, in the early hours of June 12, 2016.
Wolf and the friend were able to escape through a fire exit. But out on the dance floor, Drew, 32, and Drew’s boyfriend Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22, did not survive.
Two years later Wolf and a core group of Drew’s many friends continue to celebrate his life and impact with The Dru Project, a nonprofit launched in the weeks after the attack to encourage Gay-Straight Alliances in schools and grant scholarships to those who “exemplify Drew’s spirit for inclusion and unity,” according to the organization’s website.
This year’s awards, handed out at an event Sunday in Orlando, included $15,000 in scholarships to LGBTQ youth, on top of $5,000 in grants to GSAs across Florida.
Wolf and the project’s communications director, Sara Grossman, have expanded their outreach since 2016 to also address gun violence prevention and bullying while carrying. They estimate The Dru Project reaches about 250,000 people in more than 10 states.
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Christopher Andrew “Drew”Leinonen, at age 17, had been honored for starting the first GSA at his Seminole, Florida, high school. “He believed everyone deserved to be loved and treated well, and he was really passionate about creating a space in his friendships and personal life where everybody belonged,” says Wolf. “The goal is that by creating those safe spaces in schools, everyone can feel safe and welcome no matter who they are.”
“I think he felt like we all had a responsibility to not only treat people well, but to do our part to make the world a better place,” Wolf adds.
Effort to ‘Keep the Best Parts of Drew Alive’
The genesis of the organization began almost immediately after Drew’s loss.
Grossman says she purchased The Dru Project domain name on the way home from Drew’s funeral, referencing the brand Drew had created for himself as a blog and Instagram handle. “His life was a project in process,” she says.
Friends initially created a GoFundMe account to benefit the families of Drew and Juan Guerrero. But when they drafted a check for Drew’s mom, “she brought it back to us and said she wanted to invest it in something that would keep the best parts of Drew alive,” says Wolf.
That gave the friends a purpose.
“My pre-Pulse activist life can best be summed up in one word, and that’s ‘complacent,'” says Wolf, a district manager for Starbucks in Tallahassee. “I spent a long time trying to figure out who I was. Unfortunately it took Pulse to kind of shake me out of that complacency.”
He’d met Drew in 2013 on a blind date, after dropping out of college in Oregon and moving to Orlando to work as a Disney World entertainer. Wolf had prepared a set of pat answers to give to his new acquaintance at the first meeting, but Drew threw him right away. “What are your thoughts on the for-profit healthcare industry and its impact on consumers?” he remembers Drew asking.
Wolf wanted to know why Drew was asking. “Because I work for the for-profit healthcare industry,” Drew replied.
“We lived in a space where we were transparent and honest with each other all the time, where we didn’t shy away from tough topics, and I think that’s why we became such close friends so quickly,” Wolf says. “It didn’t really take us very long to find out the dating part probably wasn’t going to work out.” But within a year, “we were probably doing everything together.”
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“Drew had this knack for making people feel like they were the only person in the room, regardless of the crowd,” Wolf says. “He just had an innate ability to connect with people on a real personal level.”
‘Live Life a Little More Like Drew’
Wolf, now 29, recently took that spirit of face-to-face inclusion back to his own Oregon high school, which he’d left with mixed feelings after a Diversity Week he’d organized in 2006 as senior class president was met by parental protests and some students in “Straight Pride” t-shirts.
With that community lately grappling with issues of bullying, harassment and teen suicide, Wolf was invited back to discuss the work he’s now doing. “The town really showed up to listen,” he says.
He credits Drew for anchoring not just his advocacy, but his confidence.
“Even though I was ‘out’ in high school and college, Orlando was really the first place that I felt comfortable in my own skin,” Wolf says. “And I attribute a lot of that to Drew, because he was so unashamed about everything. That was really inspiring for me.”
He hopes The Dru Project can continue that work.
“I always talk about Pulse, and the reason is, I need people to understand that I was complacent once,” he says. “I also need them to understand that Drew changed my life, and I never got the chance to tell him that. And when I close my talks, I always challenge people to live life a little more like Drew … to put their arms around people and tell them that they are loved.”