One year after Pulse shootings, survivor honors his best friend, looks to the future

By Linda Dahlstrom / Starbucks Newsroom

Brandon Wolf still sees his best friend in his dreams.

They are almost always the same: Christopher Andrew “Drew” Leinonen is returning from a trip or somewhere far away to reunite with him. He’s smiling and laughing, wearing fabulous clothes like always, and has a message for Wolf: “Don’t be so sad. Don’t cry. I’m OK.”

“He reassures me,” said Wolf.

In his waking life, it’s been almost a year since he’s seen him. Leinonen and his partner, Juan Guerrero, were among the 49 people killed in the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, Fla., on June 12, 2016.

Wolf was with them that Saturday night, along with their friend Eric Borrero.

“We didn’t ever go out on Saturday,” remembered Wolf, 28. But that night was different. He and Borrero had been dating but recently broke up, leaving Wolf heartbroken. When Borrero called and asked him to go out, Wolf thought he might get another chance. He sent a quick text to his best friend, asking if he and Guerrero could join them.

“They were tired, they didn’t really want to go. But he was the greatest friend ever so of course he said, ‘I’ll go and support you,’” remembers Wolf, then a Starbucks store manager in Orlando. He’s now a Starbucks district manager in Tallahassee and Panama City.

It was Latin night at Pulse. It was crowded, so Leinonen steered the group to the patio where it was quiet and they could talk. He and Guerrero separated Wolf and Borrero to talk to each of them individually about getting back together and the importance of focusing on the positive things about the other person.

And Leinonen then did something unusual: He drew them all into a hug and said “One thing we never say enough to each other is I love you. So, we’re going to go around the circle and say I love you.”

“I told him ‘You are being ridiculous. You are being super cheesy,’” Wolf said. But Leinonen insisted – and so they did.

And then they went inside and danced.

Wolf’s memories after that come in snippets:

The group deciding around 2 a.m. that they were ready to go home

Quickly heading to the restroom with Borrero before the taxi came, while the other two waited for them on the dance floor

Standing at the sink washing his hands when the first gunshots went off, his mind trying to make sense of the sounds

Hearing Borrero ask “What is that?”

The smell of gun smoke so strong it felt like his nostrils were burning

Seeing a throng of people – at least a dozen – rushing into the bathroom to hide

Deciding with Borrero to make a run for the exit

Focusing on just getting to the door, through the smoke and past the dance floor where shots were still being fired

Being afraid to look anywhere but directly ahead

Reaching the door and crossing into safety

His feet turning to lead and his body collapsing on the ground

Once outside, Wolf had the sickening realization that Leinonen and Guerrero hadn’t come out. He wanted to go back after them, but by then the police had arrived and kept him away.

Hours later they learned that Guerrero had been shot and died on the operating table. It wouldn’t be until the next day that police confirmed that Leinonen had also died. He was 32.

“It was as if I already knew but it was still no less painful,” he said. Reality set in that his best friend – the first person Wolf said he’d ever felt truly, 100 percent himself around, his defender and encourager – was gone.

Wolf has known grief before. His mom who “was everything,” died of cancer when he was 12. And he’d lost others.

But this sudden, traumatic loss was different – suffocating. Disabling.

For a week, he couldn’t stop crying, not when he went to the grocery store, not when he went to the bank to replace the credit card he’d left when he fled Pulse. Through it all, Borrero was with him. The two officially got back together a week after the shootings. Leinonen had gotten his wish.

And amid the devastating grief, something else awakened – the desire to channel that pain into helping others and find ways to honor the joyful, supportive spirit of Leinonen. The month after the Pulse shootings, Wolf and other close friends formed The Dru Project, a non-profit LGBTQ organization that provides scholarships and creates curriculums for students to start Gay Straight Alliances in their high schools. When Leinonen was a teen, he had been given the Anne Frank Humanitarian Award for, among other things, starting the first Gay Straight Alliance at his high school.

The Dru Project had been the name of Leinonen’s social media presence. He used to say that “life was a project,” Wolf said. Throughout their friendship, the two used to joke that someday The Dru Project would be a TV miniseries or a nonprofit.

On Sunday, The Dru Project will be announcing the recipients of its first “Spirit of Drew” scholarships to students who exemplify the unity, inclusion and love that Leinonen demonstrated every day.

“The work we’ve done with The Dru Project has helped me heal,” he said. “I feel like I’m able to keep the best parts of Drew through talking about him.”

In the year since his best friend’s death, Wolf said he’s become much more aware of compassion – both feeling it for others and the compassion he received in the wake of the shooting.

A few days after the Pulse shootings, President Barack Obama met with Wolf and other survivors. When Hillary Clinton was in town last summer, she asked to meet with Wolf and others to talk about Leinonen and Guerrero . Later, he and Christine Leinonen, Drew’s mom, were invited to speak at the Democratic National Convention, along with survivor Jose Arraigada, calling attention to the need for gun control. He’s done interviews and written an op-ed for CNN calling for unity. Later this month, he’ll be giving a keynote speech at San Francisco Pride.

“As a person in the LGBTQ community, (the threat of violence) is all too real from the time you come out that someone will harm you, or you’ll be ridiculed,” he said. “But Pride is all about celebrating and standing up in the face of that and resisting it.”

For weeks after the shooting, Wolf could barely sleep more than 15 minutes at a time. And when he did, he often was haunted by nightmares. But now, he knows that when he goes to bed he might have another one of those delicious dreams where he’s with his friend again.

“It’s like when you see a friend you haven’t talked to in a long time and you get everything off your chest that’s been the drama and you get caught up,” he said. “When I wake up it’s that feeling, like, I feel so good to have seen you and we’ll catch up again soon.”

Photos courtesy of Brandon Wolf

Reach Linda Dahlstrom, director of editorial in the Starbucks Newsroom at [email protected] or 206-318-1483.

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