On the morning of Sunday, June 12, 2016 I knew that life as I knew it had forever changed. There were text messages from family and friends asking if I was okay. There was a Facebook alert to all who lived in the vicinity of the tragedy could check in as “safe.” The news was on a constant stream about the tragedy which had unfolded in the early hours of that morning at Pulse Nightclub. I had an immediate flashback to Newtown, Connecticut where 26 children and adults were murdered simply for going to school.
It took me a few minutes to get my head on straight and realize this was real. My small town, turned big city, had been a target of the worst domestic act of terror in the history of the United States of America. Once I responded to loved ones and checked myself as “safe” on Facebook, I walked up the street to the First Unitarian Church of Orlando carrying some bottles of water. Little did I know there would be a need for hundreds of those bottles because people were lined up around the block to donate blood – a blood drive which had been planned long before the Pulse shooting.
On a mission which I can only describe as one of purpose and need to help, I went to Facebook to begin asking friends to open local businesses near blood banks for the use of air conditioning and restrooms (thank you Adult Literacy League and others!) and to begin collecting bottles of water I could hand out to those in line at the Church near my home. In the afternoon I drove to The GLBT Center only to see an immense number of people volunteering, dropping off food, needing trauma therapy, and looking for hugs. I was able to stay for about an hour giving hugs until my heart began to break and I realized I needed to leave so I wouldn’t need to seek trauma services for myself.
Heading home I gave myself a pep talk that my City needed my help and no matter what I will do whatever it takes to help us heal. I will not back down. Terror will not break me. I will stand up and do what’s right and show my friends, neighbors, and the world that Orlando does not bow to terror. We are unity. We are proud. We are love.
The next few days are a bit of a blur as I spent my days going to work and my evenings helping in whatever capacity I could. A lot of time was spent organizing donations of food and water. The outpouring of support from around the world was astounding! And the vigils, how do I describe the spontaneous vigil at the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center? Tears. Anguish. Questions of how and why. Mixed in with all of this was an outpouring of love which I have never seen before. Strangers embracing each other. The best of Orlando came together to mourn and reclaim ourselves as a City you do not mess with. The vigil at Lake Eola a week later was more of the same on a much larger scale. I have never been more proud of the City of Orlando in those days.
It’s now been a year. A year of so many new things. A year of murals popping up around Central Florida dedicated to the 49 souls who lost their lives. A year of grief counselors being tested and rising to the occasion. A year of celebration to the first responders who saved countless lives and never stopped to think about what or why they were calling upon that night. A year of tears, smiles, and most of all love.
Last evening the City of Orlando and Orange County marked June 12th Orlando United Day. We, the citizens, were asked to volunteer, help someone in need, even take a shelter dog for a walk. Once again we came together at Lake Eola to remember and honor those taken from us too soon. It was an emotionally charged day with a beautiful purpose: keep showing each other and the world that Orlando is a city built on love and we will not let terror win. We will not only survive, but we will be better for it.
If you or a loved one are looking for some help in working through this or any other tragedy, please contact NAMI, Mental Health Association, or 211.
#WeAreOrlando #OneLove #ActLoveGive #OrlandoUnited
Written by: Lynn Penyak
Date: June 13, 2017