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New York Teens Send "Love Letters" to their Orlando Counterparts

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The letter-writing station.
Teens wrote their letters in a rainbow of colors.

This year during the New York Public Library’s Anti-Prom, New York teens penned “love letters” to their counterparts in at the Orlando Public Library.

In the wake of a massacre that killed 49 and injured 53 in a gay nightclub, the letter-writing campaign on June 17 was a way for all teens—especially those who identify as LGBTQ—to process what happened in a safe space. The letters were then sent 1,000 miles south to the downtown Orlando library’s teen center, aka Club Central.

“I tear up each time,” Orlando Youth Programs Coordinator Erin Topolsky said moments after opening the letters, her voice muffled over the phone. NYPL isn’t the only one sending tributes to the main library of the Orange County Library System: Individual librarians have tweeted their support, librarians around the world have contributed to the Orlando Syllabus, and a Michigan publisher created a mosaic of librarians’ faces during the American Library Association’s conference held in Florida this year. It spells “Orlando Strong.”

There's no words. They're asking us for words but there are none. — Sophie, 14

Like many of the tributes, the 51 letters written by NYPL teens used the colors of the Pride flag to show solidarity.

“The rainbow of colors they’re even written on are amazing,” Topolsky said.

She looked forward to sharing the letters with her teens and was looking for the right time to touch on such a sensitive subject. Afterward, she’ll send them across the street to the Orange County Regional History Center, which plans to collect, preserve, and archive many of the items of love and support sent to the city since tragedy hit.

While the letters were designed to bring comfort to the teens in Orlando, they were also meant to ease the headiness of the emotion felt by 12- to 18-year-olds attending Anti-Prom in New York. But the words didn’t come easy, and many teens focused on what they couldn’t say.

“It's hard to express sympathy in a way that doesn't sound patronizing and shallow," said Piper, 13, of Brooklyn. Piper and her friends sat in a circle, literally leaning on each other for support. They could have been at in a friend’s bedroom instead of on the floor of Astor Hall.

Anti-Prom 2016
Teens strike a pose on the steps of the Stephen A. Schwarzman building during Anti-Prom.

Nearby, the Anti-Prom was in full swing. This year’s theme was Secret Garden, and bright lipstick, flower crowns, and tulle skirts were abundant. The fashion show by High School of Fashion Industries’ teens was a feast of color. A DJ was spinning, and purple lights were swirling across the high arches. Some teens danced, others slid around in their socks. But the letter-writing station was quiet, a kind of haven.

When Piper explained the inefficacy of words, her friends agreed loudly.

“There's no words. They're asking us for words but there are none,” said Sophie, 14, of Brooklyn. So she wrote that on her card. Other teens borrowed words, quoting songs and Harry Potter to explain how they felt.

Another teen grappled with the philosophical questions raised.

“Why kill innocent people? What did they ever do to you?” Naton Yamaha Nectar, 18, of Long Island asked. “We don’t know why hate exists. It just does.”

But it didn’t matter what the teens wrote exactly, it just mattered that they reached out.

“That’s been the most amazing part, just to see everyone come together,” Topolsky said. “There’s a Mr. Rogers quote, I don’t know the exact wording, in time of trouble look for the heroes and the helpers.”

And for one night, NYPL teens were both.

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