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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2019 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


June 17, 2016  RSS feed
Front Page

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Holocaust Museum’s Anne Frank Award winner among Pulse victims

Jewish Press

Images from Christine Leinonen’s Facebook page show her with son, Christopher Andrew Leinonen, above, and at right, Christopher, left, with his boyfriend, Juan Ramon Guerrero. Both men died in the shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Images from Christine Leinonen’s Facebook page show her with son, Christopher Andrew Leinonen, above, and at right, Christopher, left, with his boyfriend, Juan Ramon Guerrero. Both men died in the shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando. As a junior at Pinellas County’s Seminole High School, Christopher Andrew Leinonen – one of 49 victims in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando on June 12 – stood up for gay and lesbian teens at his school.

It was an act that earned him an Anne Frank Humanitarian Award from the Florida Holocaust Museum in 2002, the first year that the award was presented to one deserving junior from each high school.

The award “was created out of the ashes of September 11th, conceived as a way to move our community’s eyes and hearts away from the violence that had sprung out of insensible hatred, and to focus on the good that was being done, particularly by our young people,” wrote museum Executive Director Beth Gelman in a blog posted on the museum website following the worst mass shooting in our nation’s history.

“Christopher’s award nomination, written by his high school’s guidance counselor, describes the way Christopher saw and was moved to action by the everyday struggles of gay and lesbian teenagers; struggles that left many feeling hopeless and silenced, exemplified at the time by a strikingly high suicide rate. Christopher had the presence of mind and personal leadership to start a chapter of the Gay Straight Alliance at Seminole High School, working with administrators and students to make the GSA a positive presence in the school,” Gelman wrote.

The same loving spirit that merited the award remained with him until his death at age 32, just 14 years and one day after he received the award, a $100 savings bond and a personal digital assistant (PDA) at a museum gala.

Just before Leinonen and his boyfriend Juan Ramon Guerrero – who also died in the shooting – entered the Pulse nightclub on Saturday, June 11, he turned to a group of friends with them and told them he loved them, one of those friends, Brandon Wolf, said. “He said, ‘You know, something we never do enough is tell each other that we love each other,’” Wolf told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota. Wolf told of how he and some friends ran from the nightclub after hearing shots, then realized Leinonen and Guerrero were still inside. Wolf said he wanted to go back to find them, but by then, it was too late.

Friends called him Drew

Searching “Christopher Andrew Leinonen” on Facebook provides pages of statuses, pictures, and links remembering the young man who preferred to be called “Drew.” His friend Rob Evans posted a status on Facebook describing him as a “living, breathing combination of idealism, realism, and fun. He could make you challenge your worldview without ever having to play devil’s advocate. An intelligent and beautiful person.”

A Tampa Bay Times report noted he went to the University of Central Florida and worked at a hospital in Seminole County.

Leinonen’s mother, Christine, heard about the shootings and rushed to the hospital nearby, arriving at 4 a.m. Sunday morning, June 12 and waiting hours for word on the fate of her son. During the wait, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, she said she was proud of her son and pointed out that while in high school he had won the Anne Frank Award. She also called for a ban on automatic weapons, tearfully pleading, “Lets try to get rid of the hatred and violence.”

Irene Weiss of Palm Harbor, who founded the Holocaust museum’s Anne Frank Award program, said friends told her of hearing the mom’s comments. She and Gelman began checking and soon connected the dots and confirmed it was Leinonen who was among the inaugural group of Anne Frank Award winners at the museum.

Teen humanitarians

A story in the Jewish Press about the first recipients included a comment from Weiss, “In quiet ways these students ‘do the right thing’ regardless of surrounding social pressures that may guide them otherwise.”

There were 16 award winners that year, one representing each of the 16 public high schools in Pinellas County.

Weiss chaired the award effort for several years and has been a museum board member or volunteer for years. She recalled how the award committee “basically started from scratch” as to how to identify young people in the community who were deserving.

“We created a nomination process and asked principals and guidance counselors to help. This is not an award anyone can apply for; you have to be nominated.” Weiss said. She still has a copy of the original nomination papers for Leinonen.

The next year the public high schools in Sarasota, Manatee, Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties were added to those eligible for the award, and in time private schools were also added, “so we now have presented more than 1,200 Anne Frank Award (recipients),” Weiss said.

“But he was in the first group. Each winner was special. It took a lot of leadership and courage [on Leinonen’s part]” she said, adding “He worked with his school administration and guidance counselor and got some training from the GELSEN, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, and brought that training back to school to start the chapter.”

Weiss said she was heartbroken to learn of Leinonen’s death, but noted, “I think it is wonderful, from what I read, that he became a licensed mental health counselor.”

In talking about the Anne Frank Award winners, Weiss noted, “These are young people who are living our museum mission.”

On Saturday morning, June 18, a public vigil for the shooting victims was planned on the steps of the museum and all proceeds and donations made that day are being sent to the victim’s fund in Orlando, along with letters to the victims’ families that participants were invited to write at the museum.

Gelman said she sent a letter of condolence from the museum to Leinonen’s mother at the last known address she has for her in Polk County, and is hopeful it reaches her.

In Gelman’s blog, she wrote that people should “be focusing and building on the tremendous outpouring of love and support that has been flowing in from all over the country and all over the world. Right now, it is more important than ever to remember the words of Anne Frank, ‘I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart’.”

“We mourn for all the victims and their families. Most of all, we mourn for a world without Christopher, who worked to bring people together to create a community of understanding, and who bettered the world through his words and deeds. The greatest tribute we can pay to him is to embrace his ideals.”

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