A Look Back: the Making of a Stronger Orlando

By: Megan Lanier

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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.

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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.

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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.