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At Seminole High, a new sculpture recalls a popular alum killed in Pulse shooting

Christine Leinonen, right, unveils a sculpture honoring her late son, Drew Leinonen, at Seminole High School on Friday. Helping her is a friend, Kendra Frorup, of  Wesley Chapel. Drew Leinonen was killed in the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Years earlier, as a student, he started Seminole High's Gay-Straight Alliance. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Christine Leinonen, right, unveils a sculpture honoring her late son, Drew Leinonen, at Seminole High School on Friday. Helping her is a friend, Kendra Frorup, of Wesley Chapel. Drew Leinonen was killed in the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Years earlier, as a student, he started Seminole High's Gay-Straight Alliance. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Feb. 9, 2018

SEMINOLE — With the help of a friend, Christine Leinonen lifted the black veil, revealing the bronze likeness of two clasped hands.

First came the tears, and then an observation about the sculpture: The hands, she said, were the perfect representation of her son. She remembered him with a smile as someone who would always extended one.

Christopher Andrew Leinonen, who went by "Drew," was among the 49 people killed in the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando. He was 32. But years before that, as a teenager, he founded the first Gay-Straight Alliance at Seminole High.

At a ceremony Friday in the school's courtyard, Christine Leinonen hugged her son's old high school friends, his ninth-grade piano teacher and others who attended the unveiling, organized by the club he started.

THE GRADEBOOK: All education, all the time

He was popular in high school, she said — out when it came to his sexual orientation, proud and bubbly. Once he saw a girl sitting by herself in the cafeteria, introduced himself and told her she was going to be on the Gay-Straight Alliance board. They quickly became friends.

"My son, if he saw you and you were alone, he would reach out to you," Christine Leinonen said.

Kristin Moorehead, 17, a Seminole High senior and current president of the Gay-Straight Alliance, performed a spoken word poem written in memory of Drew.

"I'm carrying the torch of what Drew started," she said. "He started this movement of acceptance at our school. … I'm trying to make him proud."

Moorehead said the Gay-Straight Alliance helped give her a feeling of belonging during her first year in high school.

Elizabeth Crawley, a Seminole High language arts teacher and sponsor of the alliance, said she remembers the struggles her gay and bisexual friends had in high school 20 years ago without a similar space.

The sculpture, she said, is a testament to the organization's philosophy and a source of comfort to people in the aftermath of the Pulse shooting.

"We can't get anywhere unless we go together," she said. "Hand in hand, we can heal. Hand in hand, we are strong."

Shawn Chaudhry, 31, whose hands are captured in the sculpture, met Drew in college and the two became close friends, talking about politics and culture. Drew was curious and always interested in knowing more, Chaudhry said.

After his death, Chaudhry became founder and president of "The Dru Project," an organization that has developed curricula for Gay-Straight Alliances and raised money for the clubs.

"I haven't met many people like him," Chaudhry said. "When you meet someone like that, you just have to keep their legacy alive."

Christine Leinonen said her son lives on through such initiatives. She said his philosophy is needed at a national level.

"Even though he died physically, he's still alive spiritually," she said. "We need to hold hands, hold hands with the other side, hold hands with our own side."

Contact Divya Kumar at dkumar@tampabay.com. Follow @divyadivyadivya.

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