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‘I Don’t Even Know…’: A Community Organizer Reflects Upon Orlando

‘I Don’t Even Know…’: A Community Organizer Reflects Upon Orlando:

ORLANDO, Fla. _ I don’t even know…

Those four words have repeated in my mind countless times in the past week, and as I sit writing this they are still the only words that I can grasp. I don’t even know where to begin…and here we go again.

I woke up at 5 AM on Sunday, June 12, 2016, and it was just like any other morning. I put on my flip-flops, turned on the coffeemaker, rounded up my dogs, grabbed a cig and headed to the patio to wake up and catch up on the overnight news. I pressed the Facebook app icon, and it was in that millisecond that my life changed. When Facebook opened it was filled with posts about a mass shooting at Pulse nightclub. It was as if someone had hit me with a brick. Dazed, confused, unable to comprehend, my stomach tightened, and I lost the ability to move for what seemed like an eternity, but I don’t even know.

Were any of our friends killed? Who did this? Is it over?

I retreated to the bedroom to wake my husband, Ben, to share the news, and as I made my way I quickly wondered, “What do I say? How do I say it? Can my mouth even utter the words? Will I break down?” I gave him the news, and he began to sob and grabbed his phone to check on his own, not because he doubted me, but because his own mind couldn’t process the information, either. I turned on the television, and with the brightest flash the bedroom was filled with what seemed like blinding red light from the “Breaking News” banner on the screen, and it all came crashing down around us. At that time there were no numbers of fatalities, but the tragedy was being reported as a mass shooting, so we knew that meant a lot of people were killed. We knew the bar owner, Barbara Poma, and many of the staff and people who frequented Pulse, so the questions came. Who was killed? How many were killed? Were any of our friends killed? Who did this? Is it over? I don’t even know.

As a couple, Ben and I are big supporters of the GLBT Community Center (also known as The Center), and I have served as the board president for four years, so we began showering and making calls to bring our friends and fellow leaders in the community together at The Center right away. We had to do something, but what? I don’t even know.

I called Terry DeCarlo, a close friend and the executive director of The Center, but he must have been sleeping. I called again and again and again and again. A few minutes later he called back and said he saw that I had called several times and asked what was wrong. It was like another brick hit me, and my words failed me, my mouth just wouldn’t cooperate. Finally, the words came, and I said “There’s been a mass shooting at Pulse”. Silence–what seemed like an eternity of silence–descended on the line. Then: “At Pulse?” “When?” “How many?” That last question beckoned those four words. I don’t even know.

By 7:30 AM a tidal wave of people were descending on The Center, and we hugged, embraced, cried and tried to start organizing something, but what? Someone suggested a crisis hotline…yes, that’s a good start…a crisis hotline. Set up grief counseling services for the next several days…yes, that is critical. A Facebook post…yes, that’s a good idea, too. There were hundreds of things that happened in that first hour. Who did them? I don’t even know.

In that first hour we received news that the death toll was 20, and we all just wept. More and more people were showing up to the community center, but what could they do? As the leader, they looked to me for direction and asked “What do you want me to do?” Somehow, that day, we all set in motion a community response to provide counseling services and manage the intake of donated items and their distribution across our city to locations that were dealing with the grief-stricken, the survivors, the families and the thousands of volunteers that were coming out to try to help their city, The City Beautiful, and this community deal with a tragedy. Little did we know what lay ahead of us in the week to come, but we all hugged a lot, gave kisses by the hundreds and shed tears on the floor of The Center. How many tears? I don’t even know.

People everywhere wanted the ribbons … Florida … Kansas … Connecticut.

Ben set forth making Rainbow Ribbons as a symbol of our sorrow and grief but also of our unity and love for our brothers and sisters. Everyone who came to The Center was dutifully pinned with their own Rainbow Ribbon. Reporters wanted the ribbons, and then the Facebook messages and phone calls poured in. People everywhere wanted the ribbons…Florida…Kansas…Connecticut. Volunteers came just to make ribbons. It seems as if the Rainbow Ribbon somehow bound us together this past week. Even now, while I type this, Ben is making ribbons. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands. How many did the ribbonmaker make? I don’t even know.

There is still a mountain of jobs to accomplish in the days to come. There are questions, too. How long will my heart ache? When will I feel something other than numb? Will we finally start accepting people for who they are? Will we stop seeing those who don’t look like us, talk like us or love like us as somehow less? Will we be able to just love each other for who we are individually? Will the 49 souls be the final price to pay for us to change?

I don’t even know, but I can hope.


Timothy Vargas is the board president of the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida.

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