A bouquet of heart-shaped balloons separated and floated skyward into the night air, carrying messages of love for Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz.
Below, candles burned brightly, held aloft by more than 400 people who filled the stands at Ron Allen Field at Gaither High.
They had gathered for a candlelight vigil to honor the life of the 24-year-old Sanfeliz, one of 49 people killed during a mass shooting on June 12 at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
“Chris was taken way too soon from the world,” Stephanie Woychowski, president of Gaither’s Parent Teacher Student Association said during the June 15 vigil. “Remember Chris. Remember love.”
Besides killing 49 people, the lone gunman armed with an assault rifle, injured 50 others before he was killed by law enforcement.
The mass shooting, reported as the largest in the nation’s modern history, targeted a club popular among the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.
The Gaither community responded immediately, with former classmates, current students and faculty coming together to organize the vigil for Sanfeliz, a member of the class of 2010.
“Once a Cowboy, always a Cowboy,” said Teresa Trumbach, a teacher at Gaither, known as the home of the Cowboys.
Trumbach met Sanfeliz when he was a freshman.
“He was just one of those great guys,” Trumbach said. “I find it impressive that so many of you came back.”
Before filing into the stands, people stopped to pick up candles, drop donations into a box, or leave photographic mementos of Sanfeliz in a memory box.
Friends and family clung tightly to each other in long hugs. And, they shed tears.
Amid the sorrow, though, they found a way to share the joyous times and recalled Sanfeliz’ love of life.
They talked about a young man who was the friend that everyone wanted. He was loyal, funny and compassionate. He was always ready to do whatever it took to make his friends happy.
He also had his own way of doing things.
“Chris loved cottage cheese. He loved Disney. He would walk around the house and sing Disney songs,” said Ben Mercado. “He loved Selena (the movie).”
Mercado said he and Sanfeliz came out as gay at the same time. Sanfeliz was Mercado’s first date with a boyfriend.
“He was just so comfortable with himself. It was such a privilege to have Chris as a friend,” Mercado said.
Brian Dell, former band director at Gaither, remembered Sanfeliz, who played in the saxophone section.
“He loved every minute of it,” Dell said. “He always had a smile on his face. He said hello every day.”
The Gaither marching band took to the field to play the school’s alma mater.
Cindy Stuart, vice chairwoman of the Hillsborough County School Board, and Anna Brown, assistant superintendent of Student Services, attended the ceremony.
“This weighs heavy on our hearts,” Brown said.
The Sanfeliz family came from Cuba in the 1960s, with nothing, said Mike Wallace, a family friend.
Sanfeliz grew up in Carrollwood and attended Hillsborough Community College. About three years ago, he began working for JP Morgan Chase as a teller, and recently was promoted to personal banker.
Michele Tweedle also works for JP Morgan Chase, but not at the same branch as Sanfeliz. Her 16-year-old daughter, Rayna Tweedle, plays in Gaither’s marching band.
“It’s a sad situation,” Michele Tweedle said. “The community has got to come together.”
Yunielquis Valdespino didn’t know Sanfeliz well, but saw him occasionally at nightclubs in Tampa.
“He loved to dance,” Valdespino said. “He’d get along with anybody.”
Love is the meaning Mercado hopes people take from Sanfeliz’s life, not the hate behind the action that led to his death.
Mercado honored his friend with words from a sonnet written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, winner of a Tony award for his Broadway musical, “Hamilton.”
“Love is love is love,” said Mercado. “And, we love Chris.”
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Published June 22, 2016