One day last week Helena Iaquinta found herself in a place where she should feel safe and welcomed thinking thoughts that were themselves unwelcome and in some ways unavoidable. She found herself considering - what if?
"Everyone's dealing with it in a certain way, but sitting at the bar and looking around like, 'What's our escape route? That's really sad," she said.
Iaquinta, an engagement specialist on the Southern New Hampshire University SNHUconnect team, was with her wife at the Element Lounge, an LGBT-friendly "alternative lounge" in downtown Manchester, N.H. It was days after Omar Mateen killed 49 people inside PULSE nightclub in Orlando, the deadliest mass shooting in American history, and instead of enjoying drinks, music and company she was reminded that for some, she is a target.
That's one of the reasons that Iaquinta and a handful of other SNHU employees were motivated to host a table and impromptu photo booth inside SNHU's Millyard offices and offered employees the chance to write a card of support to the victims and family members affected by the shooting. Many also took pictures of themselves holding signs reading "#lesshate," "#equality" and "#prayersfororlando." Others held a rainbow-colored heart.
"We all are dealing with it - and they're dealing with it - and hopefully this makes a difference in this small part of it. Silence is worse than doing something and so this is what we figured would be a way for people to express themselves through letters or through their pictures," Iaquinta said. "It's just nice to know, too, that we have such a welcoming and open community here because there are people that might not even realize, (who) aren't out yet. It's just nice that they have support."
When shots rang out in a Florida nightclub in the early morning hours of June 12, terror exploded on the dance floor. Fear and panic stalked the DJ booths and bathrooms and patio of PULSE, an LGTB-friendly dance club in Orlando. Since then, the assault has been called a terrorist attack, an act of hate - or some combination of both. But after Mateen was killed by Florida police and the immediate terror faded, other emotions have radiated from the corner of South Orange and West Esther streets: Anger and even rage, hate and still fear. But the ripples from an attack like this one also engender something amazing - love, acceptance and support.
Friday was a chance for SNHU employees to express in a small way their own feelings from an act so horrific it touches us all, and to express to Florida residents closer to the epicenter of the attack that Americans everywhere are thinking of them.
"When something like this happens to any part of the country, it impacts us. We feel like we're a part of their community too," Amelia Manning, executive vice president of SNHU College of Online and Continuing Education, said Friday. "When you see the story, it's been so horrifying and yet, it is just inspiring to see how people have wanted to support Orlando and each other. It's important for us to do that because no matter what ... this happened to all of us. It impacts all of us."
Tiffany Fifer, director of online engagement for SNHUconnect, said the response from employees just arriving at work Friday morning was very positive and encouraging. In less than two hours close to 150 cards were made. Organizers plan to send them to PULSE and Equality Florida, a nonprofit educational charity and advocacy group supporting the LGBT community. Fifer said she just hopes the efforts give a small amount of comfort. "I hope that they feel some love from the university community," she said. "I know that there's been so many students and staff and faculty that have been impacted in different ways. So to be able to send that love out from our community to their community is pretty powerful."
Fifer said members of LGBT+League, SNHU's club for LGBT online students, had also expressed an interest in doing something to express their support for the Orlando LGBT community. Online students were also invited to submit messages that Fifer and other organizers will write onto cards to be sent to Florida.
In a message to the entire university earlier this week, SNHU President Paul LeBlanc said it's incumbent on everyone to ensure members of the LGBT community are welcomed, now more than ever. "We need to find ways to support and reassure members of our own LGBTQ community, to let them know that we love and respect them as human beings, colleagues and fellow members of a university community that prizes diversity and has a long history of welcoming people of all faiths, ethnicities, races and sexual orientation," LeBlanc wrote. "As I've said elsewhere, we still have a lot of work to do and we can be better. That work feels more important and urgent than ever."
LeBlanc also spoke at an on campus gathering of students, faculty and staff held on Tuesday, as did faculty members and a member of the President's Commission for LGBT Advocacy, according to Associate Dean of Students Marlin Nabors. "We just said this is too big and too many intersections of community members here for us to ignore an opportunity to get people together really just to have a chance to recognize this and be around likeminded people to support," Nabors said. "It seemed like we needed it. People needed a place to come together and really acknowledge all the different communities at SNHU that were affected by this."
Missy Lomie and Stacy Aleksa, a pair of first-year student advisors, were among the last to pen their thoughts and well-wishes Friday morning. Aleksa said she appreciated the opportunity because being so far away from where the shooting occurred, she hasn't had another forum. She said although everyone is affected by the tragedy, those further away sometimes don't have an outlet to express those feelings. "So I think it's a good way for us to channel those feelings ... I kind of felt like I didn't know what to do with them because we are a little further away but it could have happened to anyone anywhere," she said.
"I think it's really good that we're doing this for them and they know what they're surrounded by," Lomie said. "I think it's fantastic. I have students in Florida and I think ... to show them that our community is thinking about them in this difficult time shows that we care about our students and the people around them."
Sarah Mann, another first-year student advisor who helped organize Friday's efforts, said the shooting really affected her, partly because as a former Florida resident she still has many friends in the area. She said the idea seemed to resonate with many of the people who stopped at the group's table. "I think people are interested because the world that we live in now should be a friendlier place, and with this going on it's difficult to look at the situation that happened because it was such a direct hit," she said. "We have such a big community and we work so closely with the LGBT community ... I think it really hit home with a lot of us and we really wanted to show our support."
Manning said the number of people who stopped Friday morning to write cards or have their picture taken demonstrated how unspeakable violence like the Orlando shooting affects people far beyond the boundaries of the city or town where it occurs. "When something like this happens to any part of the country, it impacts us. We feel like we're part of their community, too," Manning said. "I feel really heart warmed about how much this community cares and their desire to do something to show their support. My biggest hope is that people read the cards and they feel we are standing in solidarity with them."
The work, LeBlanc said, is never over and it's important especially now to focus on openness and inclusion across the university. "Together we can make at least make SNHU a place where the ignorant comment or even slur is unacceptable and that all members of our community know they are accepted - better yet, embraced - for who they are as individuals, and that in the complexity and diversity of our beliefs, skin colors, sexual orientations, family structures, and cultural practices we find wonder and inspiration and yes, love for one another," he said. "We certainly need it."