It’s almost impossible to imagine the grief carried by Brandon Wolf, a Pulse survivor who lost his greatest friends. But there’s something about Wolf – some unexpected, well-versed resilience – that makes outside imagination seem ridiculous, anyway.
Wolf, who has become a voice against gun violence, and indeed a hero in his own right, lost friends Drew Leinonen and Drew’s boyfriend Juan Guerrero in June as he had run off to the bathroom. The details aren’t necessary, but Wolf is. Outside of Pulse six months later, he’s quick to turn ornaments around on a makeshift tree so that the faces of the 49 are shown.
Wolf set into action quickly, along with his friends and his deceased friend Drew’s mother Christine Leinonen. The Dru Project was established in order to assist in building Gay Straight Alliances in public high schools, a cause close to Drew’s heart. Since that June night, he’s been the face on the televisions, the voice of reason with actual knowledge of the event, who has been able to elucidate the terror and the need for change.
“I had a conversation with one of my friends the other day, and I think being able to speak and use words as a source of strength for other people has helped to keep my friends alive,” he says. “Because if they’re here with me, and I can keep their legacy awake and alive and breathing with me here living, it’s just a constant daily reminder to myself that they would be strong, so I have to be strong.”
While talk still lingers about the fate of the Pulse site on South Orange Avenue – owner Barbara Poma refused a $2.25 million offer from the city of Orlando to purchase the lot for its own memorial last month; she has promised to work outside of the bureaucracy of the city politic and make her own memorial – Wolf stands behind Poma’s idea.
“In a physical sense, this spot has to be a place where people can go and feel close to their loved ones, and I think Barbara Poma has a great plan for that,” Wolf says. “I think this community has to continue to lean on each other and that we’re a much smaller place than we thought.”
It’s a recurring theme in talking to local activists and politicians engaged in the aftermath and where we go from here. In some ways, it’s the antithesis of Orlando’s big development ambitions – most realized – over the past decade. In others, it’s a reminder of simple kindnesses, according to Wolf.
“That you can go to a Publix and somebody will give you a hug; that you can still go to any neighborhood and see #orlandostrong, #orlandounited [signs] – we have to continue to lean on our sense of community. That’s the only way we grow from this,” he says.
But it’s more than looking back at the worst firearm massacre in recorded American history. It’s looking forward to how we move on. And Wolf, whose strength of character is remarkable considering the situation, is helping to lead that charge. He’s present. He’s active. He’s seeking change.
“What might surprise people is the healing that I find is in the moments we spend together, whether it’s political rallies or the Pride Fund to End Gun Violence launch, or even coming here the other day on the six-month anniversary,” he says. “It’s healing to talk to other people. That’s my feeling. That’s what makes me feel stronger, that’s what makes me feel more positive – getting to surround myself with people who love me. And I’ve found a whole new group of those people.”
And there is happiness on the horizon, at least if the kindness of strangers is to be believed.
“It’s kind of a strange thing,” he says. “I never, ever, imagined that I would feel happy. The more time I spend around other people, that makes me feel hope. I’ve met a lot of people and talked a lot about what’s happened here. I don’t think it needs to be national for it to be impactful, because the most impactful things have been right here, in this spot.”
Like that one night when he needed to grieve the loss of his friends. That one late night of solace.
“There’s a moment I won’t forget, when I came here and wanted to be alone. I came here around 2:30 or 3 a.m. I sat over there by the fence and, you know, just spent some time with my best friends,” Wolf says. “And somebody driving by stopped and just sat with me, gave me a big hug and just sat with me for 10 or 15 minutes. He didn’t say anything. And for me, those moments are more important than anything else: standing on the stage at the Democratic National Committee conference, meeting the President of the United States. But the most impactful moments are those ones where I’ve been with someone I’ve never met before that has love and compassion.”
Gallery photos by Jake Stevens.