The site of the worst mass shooting in modern American history will be turned into an "iconic" national memorial and museum that will honor the 49 victims who were murdered by a gunman and the survivors who escaped that night from the gay nightclub Pulse.
Almost 11 months after the massacre, Pulse owner Barbara Poma and community leaders with the onePULSE Foundation announced Thursday the start of a process to create and construct a memorial. In the weeks after June 12, thousands of people visited the site to pay their respects and leave art pieces, flowers and teddy bears.
"What began as a place for fun and joy is now sacred ground," Poma says. "For nearly 13 years, Pulse served as a place of love and acceptance for the LGBT community, and it should have been the last place for such a tragedy. … What was once our little corner on Kaley and Orange is now shared with the world."
Poma opened the club in 2004 in honor of her brother John, who died of complications from HIV/AIDS in 1991. She says the gay nightclub was always a wonderful place to celebrate her brother's legacy, the lives of his friends and his community.
"My family and I were devastated by this tragic act of hate which hurt so many here and around the world," she says. "There are no words that could adequately express my level of grief and the grief that we all shared. … It's time for Pulse to contribute to the community in a permanent way."
Poma gave few concrete details about what exactly the permanent memorial would look like but said it was part of the community's "healing initiative." The money raised through the onePULSE Foundation would go to building and maintaining a memorial to honor victims, survivors, families, and the first responders and health care professionals who helped on that day. Funds raised would also be used for community grants to care for survivors and victims' families, endowed educational scholarships in honor of the 49 victims and a museum showcasing historic artifacts and stories from the tragedy.
In a video, the foundation board chairman, Earl Crittenden, says Poma has put together a group of people with global perspective to create a "living, breathing, iconic urban planning project in the memory of the 49 people that were taken."
Board members of the onePULSE Foundation, which include singer Lance Bass and retired NBA player Jason Collins, will join with a task force made up of survivors and victims' families to add their input on the process. The organization also plans to release an online survey so community members can also have a say in what they want the memorial to look like.
"The ultimate design and function will be decided by this community – not by me, not by government," Poma says. "While we can use this process to mend hearts and create change, we must never forget the true focus of the project. We will not let hate win. We will ensure that no one of this generation and the generations to come will ever forget what happened here."
The club owner did not say whether Pulse would be torn down or give a timeline for the memorial process but did add it would take a number of years to get to the final stage. Poma does plan to open another nightclub similar to Pulse but says she's still in the planning stages of that project.
Mayra Alvear-Benabe, the mother of Amanda Alvear, says the process is difficult, but she wants to honor her the legacy of her daughter and the other 48 victims. Through her grief, Alvear-Benabe has been an important guide for other victims' families, especially those who only speak Spanish and have a hard time getting information about Pulse-centered events.
"I would like to see a sanctuary of peace, love and hope – something beautiful," she says in Spanish. "This was the favorite place of our angels, so we want something that they would deserve."
Her family is still learning to live with the loss of Alvear, 25, and her best friend, Mercedez Flores, 26.
"My husband can't come to Pulse yet because he's still in pain and anxious," she says. "It's difficult for both of us. When I cry, he's there for me, and when he cries, I'm there for him. It's not easy to lose a child this way, and we had already lost another son to cancer. But we continue to have a strong faith in God."
As a crowd gathered inside the gates of Pulse to listen to memorial plans, members of Gays Against Guns Orlando were standing outside of the club with a rainbow banner made by flag creator Gilbert Baker, who passed away earlier this year.
Sonia Parra, who heads the local group, says it's important for people to talk about the impacts of gun violence when speaking about Pulse.
"Now that time has passed by, we have seen some of the families that are coming out to join us and some of the victims as well," she says. "I think people are ready."