To most people Orlando, Florida is just another place to vacation but to others it’s more than Disney World, Universal, and many other tourist attractions. To thousands of other people, Orlando is home for us. Orlando is my home, I’ve lived there my entire life. To me Orlando is running around Lake Eola, evenings working out at South Orlando CrossFit, bartending at Independent Bar, Thursday nights at Howl at the Moon, Olympia High School, Sunday brunch at Hammered Lamb, and so on. On June 12, 2016 my hometown was attacked. A man walked into Pulse nightclub and killed 49 innocent people and injured 53 more. To say I was sad would be an understatement, I was devastated. I’m not here to give you the details of what happened because that’s what the news is for, but I will take you through what I personally went through last week.
As most of you know, I live in Kuwait right now. One of my best friends, Garrett, posted a status on Facebook that said “oh god please let everyone be okay!” I had no idea what he was talking about because Orlando had been the highlight of the news the last few days with the Christina Grimmie shooting and other crimes that had been committed in the Orlando area so I clicked on his status. That’s when I read that there was a shooting at Pulse Nightclub, a very well-known gay club south of Downtown Orlando. If you know me, you know I never look at people’s stories on snapchat unless I really am interested in what people are doing but the first thing I did was scroll through every story. I messaged every friend that I thought would be there or I knew was there, asking them if they were okay. After messaging friends, I went back on Facebook to see if anyone had posted anything else regarding the shooting and that’s when I saw people were now saying there was a shooting not only at Pulse nightclub but at Orlando Regional Medical Center. This is when I really started to freak out, not only was no one answering at home but I have A LOT of friends that work for ORMC so I proceeded to message them as well. The hospital shooting ended up just being a false report which I found out later from a friend that works at ORMC but I was still worried. I don’t think it got extremely real for me until I started watching the live coverage. As I laid in bed watching the live coverage, I saw a good friend that works for Orlando Police Department carrying a body with others to an SUV. I was crying at this point because that’s when I realized that this was real, this was really happening and it was huge. I had so many friends involved and I was in Kuwait freaking out. FINALLY, people started messaging me back. I have never been so happy to see people just type, I slowly started making a mental list of the people that were safe. I messaged a friend who works for Seminole County Sheriff’s Department and asked him what was going on, thinking he was at work in Seminole County but he messaged me and told me he was there too. I’m not going to go into details about what others have told me in confidence about what they experienced but I will say this, this was a very real tragedy and everyone is still trying to cope with it. I walked into work Sunday looking like I had just been hit by a truck, my co-workers were playing the news and watching coverage on the shooting and I just sat at my desk crying. I left work about every hour checking my phone and refreshing the victims list. I felt like shit because I was in Kuwait and everyone I knew was donating blood or doing something to help out. The next two days at work were very similar, I wasn’t sleeping, I was forcing myself to eat, and I was refreshing the victims list every few minutes. When I walked into work Tuesday night, I saw my boss for the first time that week, he looked at me and told me to come into his office. We started talking about what happened and I told him I needed to go home right away. I’m not exactly sure how we did it, but I stayed on post until about noon the next day until my leave was approved. I bought my ticket and left that same night. I hadn’t been home in over seven months and I didn’t tell anyone I was leaving either, my heart was in Orlando and that’s exactly where I needed to be.
My friend Angela picked me up from the airport, she was in the middle of planning a HUGE fundraiser for Equality Florida to be held at our gym that Saturday. She dropped me off at AT&T so I could get a new USA phone and then I walked over to South Orlando CrossFit after. I tried to donate blood but they were booked solid and I couldn’t donate anyways since I’ve been living in Kuwait. I spent Thursday helping Angela with the fundraiser and surprising my close friends in Orlando. Friday was spent at South Orlando CrossFit for a majority of the day. I did manage to leave to do a short training session with my coach at CrossFit Kingspoint and get a tattoo but I spent the day doing anything Angela needed me to do for this fundraiser. The tattoo I got was a pulse on my wrist, to signify that Orlando is one city and one pulse and we will overcome this. Saturday was our big day, South Orlando CrossFit had never thrown such a huge event before and all of us were really excited about this. We had hundreds of donations from local businesses and people, CrossFit HQ shared our event on the CrossFit Facebook page, and we were expecting a pretty big crowd. The event was a huge success, we raised over $25,000 for Equality Florida and I had tons of fun doing it with such an amazing group of people. We celebrated that night at the Orlando City game and eventually ended up at our usual spot, Stardust. I cried every time anything reminded me of what happened, I got really emotional Saturday because I was home and just everything combined. I was so happy to be home but so sad about the circumstances. Sunday was spent relaxing during the day and eating dinner with my parents that night for Father’s day. While my parents went to the vigil at Lake Eola that night, I decided to not attend. I cried so much Saturday that I just didn’t want to cry anymore so I spent my last night relaxing. Monday morning, I went to the airport and boarded my flight back to Kuwait.
As I sit here and type this, I still don’t know what to think. I don’t think I’ve ever been so sad and mad at the same time about something so terrible. Everyone watches the news, we see things like this happen all the time but when it happens in our hometown, our own neighborhood, it’s completely different, it gives you a way different perspective. I used to live next to Pulse Nightclub, I’ve been there, I’ve partied there, it’s one of those places you can just be yourself. I’ve been bartending in Downtown Orlando nightclubs since I was 19, it’s just an extremely scary thought to think it could have been any club downtown that got attacked. There were a few victims that passed away who went to Independent Bar regularly, it broke my heart to know I would never be able to serve another drink to any of those people ever again. I was really happy I got to go home for a few days, it was very sad but it was something I needed to do for myself. Orlando has come together these last few weeks, we are a strong community and we will not let a mass shooting define who we are as a city. As Buddy Dyer said, “we will not be defined by the act of a cowardly hater.” Orlando isn’t just my home, its home to thousands of other people who feel the same way I do. It sucks it took a tragedy to bring everyone together but I have never been more proud to say I am from Orlando, Florida. We took a tragedy and we turned hate into love which is amazing. We will overcome this because we are a strong city, we love hard and we will never let a tragedy define who we are as a city. Until my next post, inshalla.