Sara Grossman used to party with her friend Drew Leinonen at Pulse nightclub. She graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2007 — where she met Drew — and moved to New York City, but would visit relatives and friends, including Drew and Pulse, when she came back down.
“I don’t know how I did it… going out until 2 a.m.,” she said. “With him it was easy. He had endless energy.”
She saw him two weeks before he died in the Pulse nightclub shooting in June, 2016. She had met Drew’s boyfriend, Juan, who also died in the attack.
Grossman was completely changed after her friend died. After graduating from UCF and moving to New York, she had gotten her MFA in nonfiction creative writing. It had led to work in marketing and branding and for nearly five years, that’s what she did. But she wanted a change. She decided to move to Denver and became a consultant. After Drew died, she started The Dru Project — she said it was his screen name, before “branding” was even a thing.
“A lot of his friends would be like ‘what’s the dru project? It sounds like a nonprofit for boys,’” she said. “He branded himself before ever needing it.”
The Dru Project is an LGBTQ+ nonprofit advocacy group that promotes a gay straight alliance. Grossman says Drew started the GSA at Seminole High School when he attended. He also won the Anne Frank humanitarian award. The Dru Project, once an online handle, is now an organization dedicated to providing curriculum for GSAs in high schools all over the country.
After Drew’s death, Grossman grieved hard for a month. She had The Dru Project and had left marketing, but it wasn’t enough. She had just started her consulting business four months before Drew died. After his funeral, she nullified all her contracts.
“Your company is great but what do you do?” she would ask herself about her clients. “I decided to work in advocacy.”
She went to a Colorado nonprofit job board and found an opening for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. She didn’t leave the Executive Director alone until he gave her an interview. Four months after the Pulse shooting, she got a job there.
“Our executive director was friends with Matthew Shepard,” she said. “So we had a conversation about Pulse and Drew.”
Three weeks after she started her new job, Grossman got a call from Barbara Poma, the executive director for the onePULSE Foundation, hoping to work together on a project.
“Shortly after [Pulse] tragedy, I reached out to them,” Poma said. “I knew our foundations had similar missions.”
Fueled by Tragedy, Powered by Pain
Barbara Poma was running Pulse and other businesses with her husband before tragedy struck. After the nightclub shooting, onePULSE was immediately born. Poma wanted to meet others who had been doing the work she now wanted to do, including Matthew Shephard’s parents.
“Judy and Dennis had been fighting the fight against hate crimes for 19 years and I felt like connecting with them would be crucial,” Poma said. She met Sara, and they connected instantly through Drew.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder, and the Foundation will be working on a multitude of events and projects. Grossman and Poma are working on an event in Orlando for June.
“We decided to do a celebrity fundraiser to raise money for both organizations,” Grossman said. “Bringing these two organizations together will be powerful. It makes sense.”
Every year, The Matthew Shepard Foundation has a gala, but this year it will be much bigger, Grossman said. There have been requests from all over the country, from The Laramie Project, to art shows, and countless other events where people have felt compelled to do something.
“So many people call and email us to tell us they created something in honor of Matthew Shepard,” Grossman said. “We’re going to try to collect them to put them in a gallery here in Denver.”
But it’s the partnership with onePULSE that Grossman is excited about. While dates and events haven’t been finalized yet, there are plans to include not only a celebrity fundraiser, but also a showing of The Laramie Project — a play about reactions to the murder of Shepard. It draws on the reactions of hundreds of people that were interviewed in the town of Laramie, Wy. It’s one of the top 5 most popular plays in the country, Grossman said. And this project is one of a bunch of moving pieces.
So far, Grossman says the month-long event will start with Gay Days on June 2 in Orlando. Proceeds will be split among both organizations, with a gala or a celebrity reading of The Laramie Project — or both.
“We’re raising awareness of how these two organizations and foundations were born out of tragedy,” Grossman said. “[We’re] creating good by moving anguish into action.”