In the midst of political parties campaigning and students rushing to class, 17 white balloons hovered over it all on Turlington Plaza on Friday afternoon.
One for each of the lives lost in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Wednesday.
What started as a small crowd grew to about 50 people as passersby stopped to join in the vigil organized by the Challenge Party. UF students who had graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas spoke about the strength of their community in Parkland and some of the lives lost. Counselors from the UF Counseling & Wellness Center were available at the event for students who needed to talk.
“I thought that something like this needed to happen, but when you come here and you see how devastated people are, you realize that people need it so much more than you think,” said Anthony Rojas, the Challenge Party president.
Although the organizers had originally planned for Century Tower to chime 17 times in remembrance of the victims, Rojas received an email this morning denying the request, stating that the bells would be rung at a UF-sponsored vigil Wednesday, he said.
“I was very upset by it,” he said. “I think if these bells have to ring four or five times, 17 times, I think it’s for a great cause just to remember those victims.”
After pre-planned speakers, Rojas opened the floor to anyone who felt compelled to speak. Some students begged for political action, others for the spread of kindness. As alumni of the high school recalled the familiar halls they used to walk, attendees dressed in Douglas apparel choked back tears. UF President Kent Fuchs said 283 UF students graduated from Douglas.
The Broward Education Foundation has a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the victims and their families. It is Broward County Public School's official fundraiser.
Janae Moodie, candidate for Student Body President, closed the vigil with a prayer.
“I pray for the families that will never get to say ‘I love you’ physically one more time,” she said.
Several other vigils were held over the next week. There were two candlelight vigils Friday night at 9 p.m., one on Turlington Plaza and the other on Plaza of the Americas. On Saturday, Gainesville residents held a vigil on the steps of City Hall at 7:30 p.m., and on Wednesday, there will be a UF-sponsored vigil on Plaza of the Americas at 7 p.m.
Abigail Shank, a UF political science sophomore, attended Friday’s vigil to show her support for the Parkland community. One of her close friends is a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School alumna, and she has seen the importance of reaching out in the aftermath of tragedy.
“I think if I can be there and be a supporter and just show solidarity with everyone affected, I think that’s the least that I can do,” the 19-year-old said.
Shank didn’t realize just how much the tragedy had affected the UF community until she watched the crowd grow at the vigil.
“It’s crazy how widespread the effect is,” she said, “and that this one person can cause so many people — that he doesn’t even know and won’t ever probably be able to fathom — so much pain and hurt.”