Two-time University of Central Florida alumnus Christopher Andrew Leinonen, known to most as “Drew,” lived and breathed having an impact on LGBTQ youth, hoping to equip them with education and empowerment.
As a junior in high school, Drew received the Anne Frank Humanitarian Award from the Florida Holocaust Museum for taking initiative to establish his school’s first Gay Straight Alliance (GSA).
As a student at UCF, he was a safety net who inspired the people around him to be authentic and live freely.
As a graduate with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology, he was working in his field, in love with his partner– UCF student Juan Ramon Guerrero– and at Pulse the morning of June 12, 2016.
They were among the 49 taken that night, but Drew’s hopes and strength are the backbone of The Dru Project, a non-profit established by his friends to honor his legacy.
The Dru Project will equip GSAs at high schools with a curriculum that focuses on LGBTQ history and the fight for equality and acceptance.
“The Dru Project is about our youth,” said Shawn Chaudhry, the group’s president and a two-time UCF alumnus who met Drew at UCF in 2004. “It’s important for younger people in middle and high school who are just coming out of the closet and figuring out who they are to have a safe space, to know they’re not alone.”
Chaudhry and Leinonen
The interactive course, designed by education and psychology Ph.D. students at UCF, will provide LGBTQ high schoolers and straight allies with an education intended to complement the inclusive social environment that GSAs provide.
“Thirty-one states in the country do not have protections for gay and lesbian people. What kind of message does that send to our youth?” said Sara Grossman, The Dru Project’s communications director. “Having this kind of education start in high school is paramount to creating a landscape of empathy for the next generation.”
Grossman, a 2007 grad, came to UCF from a small private high school with no GSA. She met Drew the first week of her freshman year during a meeting of UCF’s LGBTQ student organization.
“When I finally got to UCF and felt like I was finally able to be myself, Drew was one of those people I connected with immediately,” she said. “He had this spirit and way about him that was super infectious.”
Drew was known for being friends with everyone and making everyone around him feel special. After his funeral, friends from different parts of his life—including Chaudhry and Grossman– gathered at Drew’s mom Christine’s house.
A GoFundMe account had been established to help raise money for funeral costs, and Christine suggested those friends instead take the money and use it to make Drew proud.
The next day, the group secured the rights to TheDruProject.org— a tribute to Drew’s social media handle– and soon after and began the 501(c)(3) process.
The team behind The Dru Project includes Vice President Brandon Wolf, an LGBTQ activist and close friend, and Co-Founder and Treasurer Brittany Sted, a two-time UCF alumna who worked with Drew. Christine serves as board member emeritus.
The Dru Project will hold a launch party and award its first $1,000 scholarship during an event Sunday, June 11, at the Abbey in downtown Orlando.
The group plans to continue to raise money and offer more scholarships in higher amounts. For now, they’re targeting the curriculum toward Central Florida high schools, but they hope that one day, The Dru Project will have an even larger impact.
“I want The Dru Project to be a national organization, the parent group for all GSAs,” Chaudhry said. “When a high school wants to form a GSA, I want The Dru Project to be who they call.”
As shattering as Drew’s death has been, The Dru Project has been an important part of the healing process for those closest to him, Grossman said. They didn’t all know each other from the start, but now, they’re family.
“Drew was a very loving person, and we want this organization to be about love,” Chaudhry said.