A Look Back: the Making of a Stronger Orlando

By: Megan Lanier

FullSizeRender

Orlando. The City Beautiful.

I never truly understood the meaning of the city slogan until a week ago.

Orlando has never been more beautiful. Sadly, the catalyst for this profound beauty was a sudden jolt of tragedy, anger and despair. Never has an event like the Pulse Nightclub shooting affected me so deeply. Every day, we turn on the news to hear of murder in our cities and war in countries overseas – all horrific tales of unnecessary death and violence. Somehow though, the Pulse shooting was different. It was more than just a news story. It wounded my neighborhood.

I did not know any of the victims nor did anyone in my immediate circle of friends and family. Orlando is a close community, but even in a city of over two million people the supposed six degrees of separation can seem monumental at times. Even without knowing the victims and their families, the whole world seemed to bear the same pain.

IMG_4508

By the afternoon of June 12th, rainbow flags already adorned the entrances to local businesses, Facebook groups for a citizen’s response was started and an outpouring of volunteers waited in lines for hours to donate blood. I still do not have the words to express the incredible support, unity and acceptance that surged out of this city. It was obvious that we were all in this together. Complete strangers were now friends and pride for our city had never been stronger.

A week after the shooting on June 18th, my husband, some friends and I attended the candlelight vigil around Lake Eola (Orlando’s mainstay public downtown park). The Central Florida commuter train, SunRail, opened for a special Sunday service that day to provide another transportation option for attendees. 20,000 people were expected to attend. The group of us all rode our bikes to the nearby station planning to ride the train to the downtown stop. When the trains cars pulled up they were already packed to the brim with riders and dozens more pushed their way in. We knew this would be a big night.

Forgoing the train to cycle the entire trip instead, we arrived at Lake Eola Park 30 minutes before the vigil was scheduled to begin. The 23 acre lake was surrounded by people at least 10 feet deep along the perimeter. The park was strikingly beautiful and painted in a sea of colors by everyone in attendance. The final attendance count was estimated to be over 50,000 people.

Although it had been a weekend full of gray skies and rain, just minutes before the program began a massive rainbow emerged across the sky – directly over the park. Everyone erupted into applause as our gazes all turned upwards. We knew the meaning of that message.

IMG_4531

The vigil commenced with words from Orlando Mayor, Buddy Dyer, Orange County Mayor, Theresa Jacobs, and several other figureheads who were involved with the incident. Everyone shared a message of love, humanity and strength. Our city would not be overcome the actions of one. In the final moments, we lit our candles and the area sparkled as the names of the 49 victims were announced. It was a beautiful moment and one that will be fixed in my memory forever.

Following the close of the program, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” played. It was as if everyone was frozen in time. Although the announcement to leave had been given, it was as if we all just needed a few extra moments to take it all in. The lake glistened from the reflections of candlelight and there was a great sense of belonging.

The social media hashtags surrounding the event – #OrlandoStrong and #OrlandoUnited – could not be a more accurate representation of the feeling and response. We are together in grief as much as strength.

I have never been more proud to call Orlando home and I know that we will only become stronger.

A Look Back: JD Casto and what Pulse meant to him.

Flag and Sky

It has been a little over a month since my hometown community was faced with the country’s worst mass shooting, words I would never attribute to the city in the shadow of the Mouse. Below is the story of a dear friend of mine who pushed himself to exhaustion to be there for the Orlando community. 

While the world came together to mourn the tragedy of the Pulse nightclub shooting, Orlando resident, J.D. Casto opened his heart and home to anyone who needed a safe space. Originally from Ohio, J.D. attended Rollins College and since graduation has been building his career as a photographer, videographer, and community organizer. Having chosen Orlando as his home, the events of June 12 hit particularly close to home.

Gay Chorus and Anderson
J.D. Casto is here on the left.

Even though he did not lose any close friends that night, the attack was personal. Pulse to J.D. is “a safe place to have fun and not be judged” and was a welcoming place for all kinds of people. In fact, his first time to the nightclub was with a group of straight male friends later in his college years.

13412058_10206371813520884_6116671250334326420_o

The last time he went to Pulse, he was invited by his straight guy friends to go out on a Tuesday. With excellent drink deals, the guys just wanted to enjoy a chill environment. J.D. remembers that the crowd was truly representative of the diverse community in Orlando.

13422422_10206376404315651_5244840542823907207_o

As the dust settles and life slowly returns to normal, J.D. was quick to point out that while we may focus on the gun control debate now, there is a larger issue at play. “We need to reform our education system. Without that, our communities will continue to only see differences and continue to be divided.”

The images above were made possible by J.D. Casto Photography and you can find his work on Facebook and Flickr.