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Orlando Strong

Austin Lee

To quote a local radio personality, “Orlando has had the worst week ever.”

As you likely know, in the early morning hours of June 12, 2016, a lone gunman opened fire inside Pulse nightclub in Orlando killing 49 victims and injuring 53 others in what is now the most deadly mass shooting in US history and the most deadly terror attack since September 11. As an Orlando resident, I woke up Sunday morning to a barrage of news alerts and text messages asking “Did you hear what happened? Are you safe? Are your friends safe?” Luckily, I was safe and so were all of my friends.

I have lived in and around Orlando for 22 years of my life and I’ve always thought of it as an overgrown small town. With about 2.3 million residents in the greater Orlando area, we have a large number of people, but it has never felt that way – it’s just always felt like home. Orlando is a place to get away, to have fun, to live your life. Orlando is a place to feel safe.

When I woke up Sunday morning, all I could think was “I have to be dreaming. This isn’t happening here. I have to be dreaming.” In the past, every time a tragedy of this caliber occurred, I paid attention to the news and felt truly sorry for the victims, families, friends, and surrounding community. I never thought this was something that could (or would) ever happen in my city. I found myself asking if life in Orlando would ever be the same, asking why people commit evil crimes, and even thinking one person may have just broken the city that I love for good.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more wrong in my life.

On Monday, I attended the candlelight vigil in honor of the tragedy at the Dr. Phillips Center in Downtown Orlando – just a mile and a half north of Pulse. Everyone in the city seemed to be there for only the vigil and nothing else. Everyone walked in the same direction, with the same goal. This was about the time I started to realize how wrong I was about Orlando being broken for good. About 7,500 people were at the vigil that night. It was absolutely overwhelming. We came together as a community and hugged each other, hugged strangers, cried, and prayed. It felt like we had all come together as one. Everyone was there not only to pay respects but also to be there for each other, letting others know they weren’t going through this alone. It was going to be okay.

In the days following the vigil, it became apparent that we truly were going to get through this together. Over 5,000 people donated blood in the first 24 hours, over $7 million was donated to the OneOrlando fund to support the community and victims, another $5.35 million was raised on GoFundMe for Pulse by Equality Florida, countless people donated food, water, funeral services, mental health care, and anything else they could offer the victims, families, or first responders of the tragedy. Our office has shared in this spirit – volunteering time and resources where we can come together as a community. Within a few days, people started to smile at each other, support each other, and lift each other up – whether you knew them or not. You could feel the mourning turning to support.

In the past week, I have become a firm believer that this tragedy has brought Orlando together again. In the 22 years I have lived here, I don’t know that I have ever seen Orlando so united, so strong, and so kind. We have risen to the challenge of evil. One evil person entered Pulse that night, but the Orlando community of 2.3 million has come roaring back with love and kindness to show that love always conquers hate, letting the evil people in the world know that you will not break us. Orlando will rise to defeat the forces of evil, and we will take care of each other and love each other. That is how I know Orlando is stronger. This community has shown incredible resilience in the face of evil and we have taken care of our brothers and sisters. I have never been more proud to call myself an Orlando resident.

If you are reading this from outside the Orlando area, thank you. We have seen support from the entire world this week. If you have contributed in any way, shape or form to that support, I thank you from the bottom of my heart on behalf of the Orlando community.

If you are reading this inside the Orlando area, stay strong. We have a long fight ahead of us. If we continue on this path of love and kindness, we will get to healing in no time. Remember to love your neighbor, smile at a stranger, support your community, and tell your family and friends you love and care for them. We will not get through this alone. We will get through this together, and I know that for a fact - because we are Orlando Strong.

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