Thousands gather for Central Florida Women's Rally at Lake Eola

Events hosted by Central Florida women happening around the world

ORLANDO, Fla. – A connection over social media and a pact between two longtime friends turned into the grassroots movement that brought together an estimated 6,000 people for a women’s support rally at Lake Eola Saturday.

The Central Florida Women’s Rally was one of more than 600 events happening around the world the same day in an effort to bring attention to women’s rights and issues.

[PHOTOS: Central Florida Women's Rally at Lake Eola | History Center to archive signs from Orlando women’s rally]

Organizers with the Women’s March on Washington estimated more than 1 million people would participate across 59 countries.

Gricel Fernandez, of Orlando, said she and her friend of 20 years, Autumn Huff Garick, wanted to go to the march in Washington, but one thing led to another and it wasn't going to happen for them. They both still wanted to be involved in the movement on a local level.

"We heard about what was going on in D.C. and decided we could serve our own community by having an event right here," Garick said. 

A 'grassroots movement'

In November, Fernandez said she found a group on Facebook that seemed like a good place to start.

It was clear there was a lot of interest in a local women’s movement but no one knew how to begin organizing an event, she said.

As the Washington march quickly approached, Fernandez said she volunteered to get some things started, tapping her friend Garick to help.

“So do you want to see if we can make something like this happen or not?” Fernandez said she asked Garick.

In the eight weeks since that conversation, a grassroots movement was born that had “taken on a life of its own,” Fernandez said.

In about a month's time, the ladies rounded up about two dozen volunteers, and expected thousands of people at Lake Eola Saturday. 

The rally was 100 percent self-funded, with donation money covering the permitting fees and anything directly involved with the event, Fernandez said.

The YouCaring crowdfunding page set up by the organizers exceeded its $3,000 goal by Dec. 21.

Anything left over from the fund will be donated to local health advocacy, environmental, youth and education nonprofits participating in the event.

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Sara Isaac, co-president of the League of Women Voters Orange County, took a bus to the nation's capitol this weekend. Meanwhile in Orlando, the chapter was at the sister event to educate more women and men about how their government operates.

As a nonpartisan group, it was up to the national board to decide if the League of Women Voters would participate in any of the marches or events. The board voted to participate in the Washington march.

“Because we are an activist organization, it’s not that we would ever oppose the president-elect. We basically oppose certain types of policies,” Carol Davis, co-president of the League of Women Voters Orange County, said. “Some issues, we felt, didn’t meet our principle and how democracy works.”

Davis said the Orange County group has grown in leaps during the past year because of the Pulse nightclub shooting and the election, with more than 700 members, one of the largest in the U.S.

"After the Pulse shooting, our gun safety committee grew by leaps and bounds," Davis said.

The Jun 12 tragedy was heavily felt throughout Saturday's gathering, many wearing Pulse t-shirts and carrying rainbow banners in tribute to the 49 killed.

District 4 City Commissioner Patty Sheehan encouraged community members to come together the way they did after the nightclub shooting, declaring Jan. 22 "Women's Call to Action Day."

Hannah Willard, with Equality Florida, challenged people to "come out in a way that's meaningful to them," saying others can learn from the LGBT community's bravery.

'About the people'

Lake Eola’s event was different from the Women’s March in Washington, seen as a protest of Donald Trump’s inauguration as the nation's 45th president, the organizers said. The goal is to open a dialogue on issues in the area.

Trump’s comments about women, heard during the tumultuous election, and his plan to defend Planned Parenthood, lit a fire in the U.S. women’s movement, triggering the march that was expected to dwarf the inauguration.

“It’s a solidarity event in line with and in support of the D.C. event,” Fernandez said. “But none of the local events are the same.”

Fernandez said each one has its own flavor and a different theme.

In Orlando, “we did not want this to be about politics, but about the people,” she said.

There were three Central Florida events Saturday.The Lake Eola rally, a march at Riverside Park in new Smyrna Beach at 11 a.m. and a 1.7 mile march in Daytona Beach all took place.  Across the Sunshine State, gatherings are planned in Miami, Naples, Key West, Sarasota, St. Petersburg, Ocala, Gainesville and into the Panhandle, more than 10 in all.

Through social media and the Women’s March website, participants organized transportation to Washington to spread the word about local “sister” events.

"It's been such a grassroots event," Davis said. "It started with people in the community who contacted (the League of Women Voters) very early on and said they were going to have buses going to D.C."

The focus of the Central Florida Women’s Rally was a call to action to help people learn how to do something about the issues they are passionate about. Fernandez said she hoped the peaceful non-partisan rally would help people find their voice.

 “Over 5,000 people are showing up at Lake Eola park because of me?” Fernandez said. “Imagine if each one of those people went out and shared their story?”

Each speaker at the rally will told their own personal anecdote of adversity and told attendees what they can do to help.

They are “all ages, all walks of life, all everything,” Fernandez said of the nine-person speaker lineup.

"All” does encompass those who were scheduled to speak at the Walt Disney Amphitheater including LGBT advocates, Orlando City Commissioner Regina Hill, former Orange County Mayor Linda Chapin, the director of women’s and gender studies program at the University of Central Florida, an Olympia High School senior, a first generation Iranian-American and two advocates for Americans with disabilities.

Fernandez said when each person got up there to take the microphone, they would be speaking directly about something in those key issues, calling each speech "a personal story about an issue and ending with a call to action.”

As far as steps people can take to make their voices heard, Davis said the League of Women Voters is always wanting to hear from members of the community to help determine what issues are important to them.

"We select priorities based on what our community members determine is important," Davis said.

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