5 Years After Pulse Shooting Killed 49, Nightclub Owner Says, 'It Does Not Get Any Easier'
Five years after the mass shooting that killed 49 people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Barbara Poma, who co-founded the inclusive gay nightspot in honor of her brother, says the emotional trauma is still fresh.
"For those of us who live it every day," she says, "it does not get any easier."
At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history. It's still the largest modern-day attack on the LGBTQ-plus community. With in-person, post-pandemic commemorations returning this year around today's anniversary, "it's good to have events that are celebratory of life, that give people hope and inspiration," she says, "and also, it's important to give people time to reflect and lean in to how they're feeling."
"Some people find it through art. Some people find it through music. Some people find it through prayer," she says.
In time, people also will find it through a national memorial anchored by a museum that spirals into the sky "like a budding flower," according to the winning design's description, with classrooms, reflective pools, contemplative gardens and a memorial walk linking the downtown Pulse building a short distance to the hospital trauma center where so many were treated.
With more than $20 million in hand, the onePULSE Foundation -- with Poma as CEO -- is now refining those designs for a memorial estimated to cost upwards of $45 million, with no firm construction dates. In February, singer Ricky Martin was announced as national spokesman for the OUTLOVE HATE campaign to raise awareness and dollars for the effort.
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed legislation designating the site a national memorial. Having passed the House of Representatives in May, the measure will go before President Joe Biden, who is expected to sign it into law, NBC News reports.
But the foundation's mission includes more than just the building, and last month it announced $236,300 in its second annual class of 49 "Legacy Scholarships."
The awards for academic and career study reflect the array of passions and interests of the 49 victims. "It was really important to the families that their (loved ones') name not just be read once a year on June 12th and be on a plaque on a wall," says Poma. "They had dreams, they had aspirations and jobs and careers." For example, victim Amanda Alvear hoped to become a nurse, so her family directs the scholarship in her name toward a nursing student.
"It's the most uplifting, inspirational part of what we do," says Poma.
In 1991, Poma's older brother John died after battling AIDS. In 2004, Poma and her friend Ron Legler founded Pulse Orlando in John's memory. "Being raised in a strict Italian family, being gay was frowned upon," Poma had explained on the club's website before the shooting occurred. "However, when John came out to his family and friends, the family dynamic transitioned from a culture of strict tradition to one of acceptance and love."
The name "Pulse" itself was derived from the idea of John's heartbeat "reverberating throughout the club," which hosted fundraisers for efforts as diverse as Make-a-Wish and breast cancer awareness, as well as those in support of LGBTQ civil rights.
While the pandemic hampered fundraising for the nonprofit foundation as it did for nonprofits everywhere, behind-the-scenes work shifted to include virtual "listening sessions," led by an interpretive planning firm that worked on the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. The goal is to shape what will go into the Pulse museum.
"They've met with our families, our survivors, first responders, local leaders, groups here in Orlando and the general public to just start developing what that storyline looks like," she says. Those who've participated "want people to know what PULSE was before, what a family it was, how important it was to the LGBTQ+ community, the Latin community, the African-American community - to understand how much fun and joy and sense of family there was."
"They know they have to talk about June 12th," she says. "Some are adamant that they want to tell every single minute of it. Some aren't so sure. We talked about making sure there are safe spaces within the facility, that if you don't want to relive any of June 12th, you don't have to."
But seizing upon the worldwide outpouring of support, "they really, really want people to know what happened afterwards," she says. "They want this institution to create change in the world, and teach true inclusivity, and that's just really important to them. They want their children's legacies to live on. They want people to know who they were.
"Even though there are so many shootings still happening in our country, why PULSE still resonates with so many is because this community has been a marginalized community for centuries, around the country and all around the world. So I think just seeing the response in the world meant so much to them."
Visitors to the site where the vacant club still stands today find an interim memorial, with a curving barrier wall that envelopes the building with curated photographs and tributes, and small benches placed in a pocket park-like setting. Digital kiosks invite people to press on a victim's name to learn their stories in brief bios.
Larger family and survivor registries continue to be collected, and Poma says they will eventually find a permanent home in the museum.
"There are survivors there, and family members there at any given time," she says. "Especially first responders. You'll find people who work at the hospitals, just sitting there having their morning coffee before they walk down to the hospital. Or at lunch time. I know them, so I know who they are, lots of them. But it's just definitely their space."
As for Poma herself, she explains, "I can tell you it's been a journey for me. The first couple of years, I had to be there every day - physically had to be there. I still don't know why, but I just had to be there to take care of it, to watch it. I found somehow that relieved my anxiety."
In years three and four, it became "too painful," she says. "It was too much of a reminder. This year, I seem to be finding some better balance. But right now, I have no other alternative than to be there. So I'm there."
"We don't want what happened here ever forgotten."