LGBTQ Pride Month

One Year Later: How Orlando Came Together After The Pulse Nightclub Shooting

"Orlando changed forever for the better."

Josean Garcia didn't think he could go back to work.

The Orlando native, who had recently lost his mother to cancer, was inside Pulse Nightclub during the tragic shooting last year that killed 49 people and injured dozens more. He lost two of his best friends in the attack, Mercedez Marisol Flores and Amanda Alvear, that June 12.

As reported by The Washington Post, Alvear, whose Snapchat video of the shooting was seen 3 million times on Facebook, was planning to move to Tampa Bay and go to nursing school. Flores wanted to become an interior designer. Garcia was an aspiring musician who had worked at Pulse in the past. In the wake of the shooting, Garcia received counseling for PTSD and just couldn't bring himself to go to work. But the Orlando community rallied around him and other victims. Garcia and about 225 others received financial help from a grassroots fund called Pulse of Orlando.

"How people came out, went to blood centers, that was very needed," Garcia told A Plus. "The whole city just came out; there were lines around buildings people donating things. Slowly, we saw not only the city, but the U.S. and everywhere around the world, people helped and donated."

A group of police officers stand next to a patrol car memorializing the Pulse nightclub.
A group of police officers stand next to a patrol car memorializing the Pulse nightclub. JD Castro / Pulse of Orlando

The Pulse of Orlando fund was the first nonprofit to give money to the victims' families. Aly Benitez, the founder of that fund, met Garcia when he was receiving counseling. 

"I started the fund called Pulse of Orlando to give money immediately to families and survivors," Benitez told A Plus. "That money was keeping people in homes, paying rent, mental institutions, hospital bills. It wasn't just financial, either. We ended up being advocates for them and navigated getting resources they needed."

The fund, which raised $300,000 through a few different events, is closed now. But on Monday — the one-year anniversary of the shooting — Pulse of Orlando is planning to give out its last $100,000 to victims and their families. According to Benitez, the Pulse of Orlando fund raised an initial $40,000 by hosting a Latin event block party. They also saw donations come in from around the country. A bar in Nashville raised $25,000. Another bar in Kansas City raised $26,000. 

"It was needed, definitely, for me," Garcia, who is back at work now, said. "Everyone has bills and responsibilities. I'm still young and building my future and it meant the world for me that people came and stepped in help. No one had to do that. I'm very humbled by it."

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks at a memorial dedicated to victims of the shooting.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks at a memorial dedicated to victims of the shooting. Pulse of Orlando

But the community wasn't done.

The OneOrlando Fund, set up by Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, popped up after Pulse of Orlando's initial grassroots effort and raised over $30 million before it closed. On the anniversary, events are being held across the country to memorialize the tragedy. Benitez says she'll be at Pulse Nightclub from 1 a.m. until the early evening the next day, with events all day — including a speech by Dyer.

Garcia says he still doesn't like being in big crowds, but on Monday a song he wrote for his two friends will be debuted on a float during a parade in Boston. There will even be visuals of him recording the song for the first time, which he said he wrote in an hour. 

"It just flowed out of me," Garcia remembered. "It's really inspired me. My best friends Amanda and Mercedez always supported me; they've even been to my live shows. Why stop? Why not make a song to dedicate to them?"

Since the tragedy, both Garcia and Benitez say they've seen the city come together and felt unity like they never have before. 

"I've really really understood the words 'Orlando united,'" Garcia said. "It's something very personal. We are a perfect example of what the rest of the world needs to be like... what Orlando did after the tragedy, how united we all were, that's what the world has to be."

Aly Benitez (right) and board member Kristin Lepore (left) pose with Wernel Martinez (middle), a survivor who received financial help from the Pulse of Orlando fund.
Aly Benitez (right) and board member Kristin Lepore (left) pose with Wernel Martinez (middle), a survivor who received financial help from the Pulse of Orlando fund. Pulse of Orlando

Benitez, who is gay, says that victims of the attack like Garcia inspire her — not just because of their resilience, but because of how positive they are. In fact, the way Garcia channeled his energy through music is a perfect example.

"One thing that people don't write about a lot that is important is the fact that these kids, these survivors, they could have sat and cried in the corner and been miserable and sad and think, 'Your life is over,'" Benitez said. "Or it can influence you in a positive way and make you realize that you have a renewed purpose. I'm telling you, a majority of these kids, that's that way they've gone." 

And, just like Garcia, she's been blown away by the city of Orlando.

"A lot of positive has come out of this tragedy," Benitez said. "If you were in Orlando, you'd be able to see and feel the fact that we have really all come together. We haven't dissipated. Usually, people come together in the face of a tragedy and after a few months, they go back to their normal lives. That didn't happen here. Orlando changed forever for the better."

Cover photo via Pulse of Orlando.