Orlando will create advisory board to oversee Pulse nightclub memorial project (2024)

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Photo by J.D. Casto

Eight years after the deadly mass shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, city leaders are making progress on a new plan to finally build a memorial for victims and survivors of the shooting.

After buying the former club property just south of downtown last October and taking over the Pulse memorial project two months later, the next step, according to city leaders, will involve the creation of a Pulse Memorial Advisory Committee to guide the memorial project.

The advisory committee will consist of shooting survivors, family members of victims, first responders and other "stakeholders," according to the city, and is slated to be finalized in early July.

The application to apply for the committee is currently live online, and will accept applications from interested parties through June 21. Mail applications will also be accepted, and must be postmarked by June 21.

Three to four advisers, separate from the committee, will be chosen from the community to review applications without names or personal identifying information (a "blind" selection process). Advisers will select recommendations for the committee, which is expected to consist of 10 to 15 members. Three of those members will be appointed by Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.

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The makeup of the committee will be formally announced July 8, and the first meeting of the committee is expected to take place the week of July 22.

The memorial project is meant to honor the 49 victims of the June 12, 2016, mass shooting at the gay nightclub, most of whom were queer, Hispanic and Black. It's also meant to honor the many survivors who attended the club's Latin Night that fateful day, in addition to families of victims.

Dr. Larry Schooler, a public relations professional who's been brought on to help oversee the memorial project, stressed that the intent is for this process to be "accessible, inclusive and transparent," to allow for input and participation from community members in Orlando and survivors and families of victims who live outside of the City Beautiful in other states or countries.

Schooler, who's been involved in similar projects before, began conducting initial focus groups with about 45 family members of victims, survivors, and community stakeholders in collaboration with Joaquin Guerra — a public relations pro focused on bilingual outreach and engagement — in April.

From that experience, Schooler says a big takeaway is that survivors and family members would like to see the memorial completed "as soon as possible, so that they can honor their loved ones properly and continue their own healing process."

A Pulse memorial and museum project, led by the now-defunct OnePulse Foundation, had been years in the making, but was recently scrapped after the nonprofit OnePulse formally announced its decision to abandon the project. The nonprofit shuttered its operation entirely on Dec. 31, 2023.

Over the years, members of the public in Orlando — and far beyond — poured millions of dollars into the OnePulse Foundation, with the hope that the nonprofit would be able to deliver a permanent memorial capable of honoring the lives of victims whose lives were stolen, in addition to survivors and others affected by the tragedy, such as family and traumatized first responders who were there that night.

City commissioner Patty Sheehan, who is part of the LGBTQ community herself, admitted Friday that she was "disappointed" and "frustrated" by the OnePulse Foundation's failures.

"I'm disappointed that OnePulse was not successful and basically raised a lot of money that didn't go anywhere and did not benefit the people it meant to benefit," she said during a press conference at City Hall.

Sheehan was reportedly once friendly with the founder of OnePulse, Barbara Poma, who was one of the owners of the Pulse nightclub, along with her husband Rosario and businessman Michael Panaggio.

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photo by Monivette Cordeiro

City Commissioner Patty Sheehan

Barbara Poma in particular has been criticized by some over the years for at times paying herself six figures as executive director of the OnePulse Foundation, even as the public waited years for the memorial the nonprofit promised to materialize.

Poma, who was vacationing in Cancun the night of the shooting, stepped down from her role as executive directory in 2022 and separated herself from the organization entirely last year. The Pomas and Panaggio also refused to donate the former club property to build a permanent memorial on the site, and dragged their feet on selling the property to the city for what eventually was an inflated price of $2 million.

"I'm heartbroken that we were taken advantage of," Sheehan shared candidly. "I really feel that the LGBTQ community, the victims and survivors were taking advantage of. And now we have to fix it."

Both Sheehan and Mayor Dyer conceded that they expect fundraising for the city-led memorial project will be harder this time around, considering how much trust (and money) that the public and private donors outside of Orlando contributed the first time around.

"It's hard for us to go out and ask for private donations until we come up conceptually with what it is that we're going to build there, so we can share that with people," said Dyer.

Dyer said that OnePulse claims they have no money left to contribute to the memorial that the nonprofit was once tasked with constructing.

Pulse Families and Survivors for Justice — a group of survivors, families and former club patrons — have called on authorities to conduct a financial audit of OnePulse, to try and determine where the millions of dollars the nonprofit raised over the years actually went.

"I really feel that the LGBTQ community,the victims and survivors, were taking advantage of, and now we have to fix it." tweet this

Publicly available tax forms and audits conducted by the nonprofit itself reveal limited information about their spending and available funds, particularly in the months before the organization dissolved itself.

The group of survivors and family members have called for a third-party inspection of the Pulse nightclub property before the city demolishes it.

For now, city leaders hope the new advisory board will offer a clear path forward in developing the permanent memorial that survivors and families were promised years ago, despite skepticism voiced by some survivors and allies.

According to Schooler, the monthly advisory meetings will be open to the public — available to watch online or attend in-person. So will all meeting agendas and meeting minutes. Spanish translation and outreach will also be made available, with the understanding that many survivors and family members of victims are not native English speakers and feel more comfortable communicating in Spanish.

Some of victims' family members and survivors of the shooting no longer live in the Orlando area and have in the past struggled at times to get updates.

One such survivor is Jorshua Hernandez, who currently lives in Puerto Rico. Hernandez was shot multiple times during the nightclub shooting, and told Orlando Weekly last year he still struggles with medical problems from his wounds, as well as mental health and the cost of medical bills.

Christine Leinonen, whose 32-year-old son Christopher bled to death on a dance floor that the city had told the club to get rid of, told Orlando Weekly she plans to apply for the committee. But, she's concerned by how few members there will be on the board, and that there's no guarantee the selection process will prioritize placing survivors and victims' families on the committee, which Leinonen says should be "the majority of the voices on how this memorial is built."

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Christopher "Drew" Leinonen, 32, was one of 49 victims of the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12, 2016.

"We have not been able to grieve," said Leinonen, who has previously said it took her over 30 hours to even learn her son had been one of the 49 people killed.

"Had we just been given a simple, dignified memorial right from the beginning, and no one had profited from all of us, we would have already been way into our grieving process," she added.

Marissa Delgado, a survivor of the shooting, told Orlando Weekly over text that she doesn't plan to apply for the committee because, frankly, she "[does] not trust the process at all."

Delgado, who suffered multiple gunshot wounds the night of the massacre, feels the city has been dishonest about the process. She described the press conference on Friday as "bullsh*t."

"[It's] obvious they have anger towards victims/survivors and are doing everything they can to shut everyone up and at the same time placate everyone by saying they are providing opportunities to contribute," said Delgado.

Commissioner Sheehan specifically said during the press conference that the anniversary of the shooting is something to commemorate, not celebrate, but Delgado believes this position is hypocritical.

"[T]hey said that this is not something to 'celebrate,' while they create celebrations and say this is something to celebrate every chance they get," adding that the city recently referred to an anniversary event as a "celebration" in a recent Facebook post.

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City of Orlando Facebook post about the upcoming CommUnity Rainbow Run, commemorating the Pulse massacre. Screenshot taken June 7, 2024.

City announcements have shared that opportunities for public input and feedback on the memorial project, outside of the advisory committee, will also be available soon.

Over in Osceola County, another tribute focused on honoring the lives of the 49 victims is also in the works.

For more information on the Orlando memorial and to sign up for updates, visit pulseorlando.org.

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Orlando will create advisory board to oversee Pulse nightclub memorial project (2024)
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