The Dru Project: A Glimmer Of Hope After The Pulse Nightclub Shooting

The Dru Project is a nonprofit that will offer scholarships and curriculum to implement gay-straight alliances in schools.

The Dru Project: A Glimmer Of Hope After The Pulse Nightclub Shooting
The Dru Project

Christopher Andrew Leinonen wasn't just loved: His friends say he was love.

"He also taught me to love people, for who they are, unconditionally, just love," Brandon Wolf explained.

Leinonen was among the 49 people killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, one year ago. His death brought life to the lessons he taught others.

Christine Leinonen with her son Christopher Andrew Leinonen

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"He taught me to never be afraid of who I am," said Shawn Chaudhry, a founder of The Dru Project, a nonprofit that promotes gay-straight alliances in schools. "He taught me that it was OK to be gay and be out."

"Drew taught me to love and be accepting of everyone," said Brittany Sted, who also founded the project.

"Authenticity was always one of those things that he stood for," said Sara Grossman, another founder. 

Leinonen's friends turned those lessons learned into a legacy.

"When you’re a person who has been loved by so many people, how could something not come out of your death?" Grossman asked.

Sara Grossman is already advocating against hate as the communications manager for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. She felt compelled to link up with Leinonen's closest friends to create The Dru Project.

Named after Leinonen's online persona, The Dru Project is a nonprofit organization that offers two scholarships annually and will build a curriculum for gay-straight alliances to implement in schools.

It's a cause that meant something to Leinonen. He won a local humanitarian award for starting a gay-straight alliance, or GSA, in his high school. He then joined a GSA at the University of Central Florida where he met Grossman.

"It was the first time that I had really been out, you know, and had other gay friends," Grossman explained. "It was my first sense of community. It was the first time that I had met more gay people and I got to feel like myself for the first time, probably in my life."

Grossman said the mission of The Dru Project is to ensure LGBTQ youth are comfortable with being themselves because it's vital just to stay alive.

"If you want to talk to statistics, suicide rates are cut in half when that is an option for gay students," Grossman said. "When you feel like you can be yourself."

One national study found that LGB youth were more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers. In addition to that, a 2016 study showed LGB youth were 29 times more likely to report attempting suicide if they lost friends because of coming out.

Leinonen's mother called her relationship with her son the original gay-straight alliance. Christine Leinonen serves on the board of The Dru Project. She focuses on ensuring LGBTQ youth feel honored and respected.

"Every teenager is going through a change," Christine Leinonen said. "And when you're excluded, you can suffer immensely to the point of you could even take your own existence away from yourself. That's how hard that period of life is."

A proud mother, Leinonen reflected on how remarkable her son's human spirit was. She wants to ensure his message continues and said her source of strength and joy is in fact her late son.

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Grossman also says she sees the program's ability to heal others.

"I want to be able to help the kid in western Michigan whose father beat him once a week from the ages of 8 to 21," Grossman said. I want to be able to help the kid in Utah who lives in a Mormon family and is afraid to come out and is considering suicide because he sees no other way. There are resources and people who care and love and want to be there for you."

The Dru Project officially launched June 11 and awarded a scholarship to the student who most exuded Leinonen's spirit of unity, love, acceptance and progress. Through the work in his name, Leinonen is still making an impact.

"I hope that as life gets better for young people, and we hope to play a part in that we've somehow done him justice," Wolf hoped.

His friends say it's a triumph filled with feats Leinonen himself wouldn't believe.

"The Dru Project is Drew's legacy," Chaudhry explained.

"Westboro Baptist Church picketed his funeral, so I guess you could say he really made it," Grossman said jokingly.

Christopher Andrew Leinonen is proof that the fallen won't be forgotten.

"Tim and I recently got engaged," Brittany Sted said. "We intend to honor him and Juan at our wedding by having two empty chairs at the ceremony with their names on them."

Leinonen could be proof that love lasts longer than life and certainly that a murder couldn't kill the kindness he gave to others.

"It taught me that, honestly, there is room for a happy ending even in the midst of a massacre — that you can triumph over tragedy," Christine Leinonen said smiling.