SEMINOLE – Nearly two years ago, Christopher Andrew Leinonen was one of 49 people killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.
Leinonen, who went by “Drew” as a teenager, was a 2003 Seminole High School graduate who also founded the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. In 2002, the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg awarded him the Anne Frank Humanitarian Award for his work with Seminole’s GSA.
The GSA honored his legacy Feb. 9, which was Unity Day on campus, with the dedication of a memorial sculpture created in his honor. The bronze sculpture of two clasped hands was made by Kendra Frorup, head of the sculpture department at the University of Tampa.
“When Kendra met with my husband and I early on to discuss our ideas for this memorial, we decided that we didn’t want just a simple stone and plaque, but we wanted to honor Drew as an artist,” said Elizabeth Crawley, the SHS GSA sponsor. “The idea of clasped hands was tossed around early on because we thought the image of hands held together in love and friendship (as opposed to the destruction that can occur at our hands) was a powerful one. When we use our hands to lift each other up instead of tearing each other down, we can achieve great things. Hand in hand, we heal.”
Leinonen’s friends Shawn Chaudry and Alex Carrelo served as the models for the sculpture. The piece was funded through community donations and fundraisers.
Nearly 100 people gathered for the Feb. 9 event, Crawley added, including guests from Rep. Charlie Crist’s office; Pinellas County leaders; the school district; Leinonen’s friends and family; SHS students, staff and administration; and representatives from The Dru Project and CommUnity Tampa Bay.
Friends, family and SHS students – both current and former – were horrified to learn of Leinonen’s death in 2016. He was remembered as a popular teen, one who fought openly for equality and who bridged the gap between various peer groups at school.
At the time of his death, his close high school friend Andrea Laing said Leinonen “was definitely ahead of his time.”
She added, “We were like the awkward kids, all of us. But the thing with Chris is he was the popular kid. Everybody loved him. He was totally open and out and not ashamed of who he was. If someone said, ‘You’re the gay kid,’ he’d say, ‘Yeah, so?’”
Another friend, Catherine McCarthy, who had also known him since high school, said, “Not everyone was as brave and strong as Chris. But he had this way of tapping into people and meeting them where they were and bringing them into the fold.”
Since Leinonen’s death, Chaudry and other friends, with the support of his mother, Christine Leinonen, have created a nonprofit called The Dru Project in his honor. The organization, which is named after a blog he wrote in college, is an LGBTQ+ advocacy group that provides templates for high schools to form their own Gay-Straight Alliances. According to the group’s website, The Dru Project also offers scholarships to students that “exemplify Drew’s spirit for inclusion and unity.”