In the wake of the Pulse massacre last summer, millions of dollars rolled in to help the survivors. But where has the money gone?

By : Alma J. Hill
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Every Friday night, for the past 13 years, Josean Garcia had gone out with the same two friends. Garcia, Amanda Alvear and Mercedez Flores had been inseparable since they bonded in middle school. On June 12, after some coordinating, the three made their way to Pulse Nightclub.

They bought a few drinks. Alvarez danced on camera for her Snapchat story, and filmed partygoers early in the night. In her haunting final clip, gunshots rang out, cutting through the music. She mutters lowly, the word “shooting” audible in the chaos. She bites her thumb searching, fumbles, and the feed cuts out.

Josean remembers escaping the club that night. He made it out safely, with minor physical injuries sustained in the mad dash for freedom. Amanda and Mercedez perished inside the club. Losing them just weeks after losing another family member, Garcia was devastated.

“It was not like a here and there thing. It was like an everyday thing.” Garcia said of the friendship ”Every weekend. Not getting that call on Friday, to see what we’re going to do for the weekend, it was very different for me. We always had a group message. The text messages stopped. It was a huge change. I missed work. I was treated for PTSD. I couldn’t even think straight.”

Garcia joined a weekly support group in Kissimmee for people who were affected by the shooting. The meetings included survivors, family members of those who died, and volunteer members of the community looking to offer their support in any way they could. Here, he met Aly Benitez, the founder of the Pulse of Orlando Non-Profit Organization.

“She knew that I was out of work, and she helped me out.” Garcia said. “It was a lending hand, and I am forever grateful for that. She really set up that committee and helped us.”

Benitez, who is personal friends with the owners of Pulse, jumped into action immediately after the shooting. In just three days, she had already filed the paperwork to be classified as a non-profit organization within the state of Florida. She gathered a volunteer board in a little over a week, and by June 30, just 10 days after their first board meeting, the Pulse of Orlando Foundation initiated their first distribution of funds to the victims and their families. They collected approximately $30,000 in the days following the tragedy and were the first organization to start offering aid to the hundreds of people who needed help.

An attorney by trade, Benitez was concerned about the immediate needs of the survivors. She was aware of the legal hang-ups involving the formation of a large charity, and didn’t want those who needed help to have to wait.

“Pulse of Orlando served basically as a bridge fund, in between when the events happened and when One Orlando could distribute, which was quite a while.” she said “It was end of September so, four months. In between when it happened and when One Orlando could distribute, we were giving money. Checks to people, in their hands, that helped them with things like getting evicted, or keeping their power on, getting family members flown in, getting food.”

Now, seven months after the tragedy, Benitez and Pulse of Orlando are closing their doors, but not before issuing one last distribution.

“We’ll be giving out over $325,000” she said of the total collected from their fundraising efforts. “Our costs (of operation) are around 2.7 percent so pretty much every dime of that money raised will be given out, once we’re done.”

Even though they’re ceasing operations, the members of the Pulse of Orlando board will continue advocating on behalf of Pulse survivors and the LGBTQ Community of Orlando. They’ve been working very closely with the LGBTQ Alliance, an unofficial organization, who has helped to streamline the efforts of the most prominent advocacy and charity groups of Central Florida. The Alliance was also formed in the days following the Pulse shooting.

Jennifer Foster and Carlos Carbonell saw a need for collaboration, as well as a platform for general communication within the existing community of Orlando-based LGBTQ organizations and their supporters. Together, they formed the Alliance as a neutral base of operations to whose intention was aid the survivors and make sure that all of their needs were met.

Foster, who is also a One Orlando board member, said of their mission, “Our goal was just to get everyone in the same room.”

Today, the Alliance is going through a formalization process, and boasts 37 participating organizations, including The City of Orlando, Orange County Government, The Zebra Coalition, Come Out With Pride, Equality Florida, the Orlando United Assistance Center (OUAC), and Watermark.It is a comprehensive, continuously evolving network, that allows for member organizations to help the survivors as thoroughly as possible.

“It sounds trite to say we’re stronger together, but that’s what it was.” Foster said. “Now, we’re able to better identify gaps in the LGBTQ community and then fill those gaps.”

The City of Orlando, as a representative of the One Orlando Fund, offered the most substantial financial assistance to the survivors.  On August 4, 2016, a town hall meeting was held by the One Orlando Fund at the Amway Arena, to outline the criteria for those in need of compensation or assistance.

Kenneth Feinberg, an attorney who was integral in the distributions of the Sept 11th Victim Compensation Fund and the Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Foundation, was named the administrator for the distribution of the One Orlando Fund.  He lead the town hall meeting outlining the criteria for distribution, letting the victims know exactly how the $27.4 million in donations would be parceled out.

“One hundred percent of the money that is available to be distributed, will be distributed to the victims and their families. All of it.” he said to those in attendance. He proceeded to outline the distribution criteria, in order from highest priority on down, making sure to emphasize each category of distribution.

“The most money goes to the individual families who lost loved ones that night. Death is a priority.” Feinberg said. When the One Orlando Fund began their disbursement on September 27, 2016, the families of the 49 individuals who died on June 12 in the Pulse Nightclub each received $350,000. As of the publication of this article, there are six pending cases that have yet to be resolved as a result of familial disputes.

“Second, for the physically injured, we want to know how long were you in the hospital as a result of the shootings. The longer you were in the hospital, the more money you’ll receive.” Feinberg continued. According to audit documents, publicly available on the One Orlando Fund’s official website, this second tier was divided into four subcategories.

Individuals who spent more than 24 days in the hospital for treatment of injuries sustained in the shooting each received $300,000 from the One Orlando Fund. Those who were in the hospital between 16  and 23 days received $260,000 apiece. Anyone treated for 8-15 days was gifted $175,000. If the injuries sustained landed them in the hospital from three days up to a week, the survivor was granted $11,000 and the five claimants who were treated for less than 72 hours received $65,000 per person.

The third tier included those we were “physically injured” and received emergency outpatient treatment but were sent home the same night. Of the 29 individuals who were approved for compensation in this category, each was granted $35,000.

The last, and final criteria for the One Orlando Fund distribution  included those who had an established physical presence at Pulse Nightclub the night of June 12.  “Even those who weren’t hospitalized, under the draft protocol, receive compensation” Feinberg told the survivors at the town hall. “If you weren’t physically injured, but you were in the nightclub, hiding, you will receive compensation.”  This final category had the most claimants, with 186 approved applicants. Each of them received  $25,000.

In total, $29.3 million dollars in aid was given by the One Orlando Fund to 299 applicants, each of whom was directly affected by the events at Pulse on June 12, 2016.

These sums of money, along with other donations, have made a significant impact in the lives of the survivors. Miguel Leiva, a father of two, reported to the Orlando Sentinel in December that he used his share of the funds to secure his family financially. After the shooting, Leiva was out of work for two months. When his disbursement came in, he gave his landlord enough cash to cover his rent for an entire year.

He told the Sentinel’s reporter “It’s a huge burden lifted to have this money and to be able to get back on my feet. I’m eternally grateful.”

Leiva is not the only survivor who used his funds to help him get back on his feet after the massacre. The Sentinel reported that Orlando Torres was able to pay off $14,000 in backed expenses that accumulated after the shooting. They also spoke with Leydiana Puyarena, who was able to put a down payment on a home for herself and her three children in St. Petersburg and finally purchase a car for her family.

Others, like Garcia, used their money to help them heal mentally from the trauma they endured.

“It definitely allowed me to take a break from reality, and just get away,” he said.

Since that fateful night in June, the victims have been granted a literal wealth of financial assistance, but it is the non-monetary contributions that truly stand out in terms of generosity.

Jeff Bauk, the current board president of the GLBT Community Center, spoke of the commitment his organization made to offer $55,000 worth of counseling services to anyone affected by the shooting. They currently offer counseling to the victims at their location on Mills Avenue.

Aly Benitez, of Pulse of Orlando spoke of how her organization offered additional services to those who had needs that couldn’t be met financially.

“I think it’s important to highlight not just the money we gave out, but really the survivor and victim navigation,” Benitez said. “We walked people through the OUAC. I met personally, people at the DMV, who were shot many times and lost their personal licenses; got them a new license and a handicap pass.”

There’s organizations like Edelman, a national PR firm, with a branch in Orlando, who is a member of the LGBTQ Alliance. When a survivor recently expressed to the Alliance the need for a specific leg brace which would not be covered by insurance and could not be obtained easily, Jennifer Foster requested the assistance of the firm. Edelman quietly took initiative and contacted the manufacturer on the victim’s behalf. The manufacturer responded and donated several of the braces to the individual, free of charge.

Orlando Health and Florida Hospital both announced in August that the would not be seeking money from the victims of the shooting in relation to their health costs. Abe Aboraya, a representative of Orlando Health told NPR,  “The hospital will bill insurance if a patient has it, but it will not go after a patient’s copays.”

Unfortunately, even charity comes at a price. The Center was investigated for alleged mismanagement of donations and funds designated as aid for Pulse survivors.

“Not even five minutes ago, I got a email from someone ‘…the work you do for and among the community is well known and cannot be diminished. You will weather this and we will all be Orlando Strong.’ That’s what we’re getting,” executive director of The Center told Watermark. “The community knows how much we do, they know how much chaos there was directly after Pulse and if 99.9999 percent of the things were right and on point and there was that .0001 percent that might have slipped through the cracks, they realize how crazy it was during that time and they’re standing with us.”

As of Feb 17, is reporting that Gov. Rick Scott is proposing extreme budget cuts to these same two hospitals totalling a combined $88 million, a cost that could decimate both facilities, despite their selfless acts of charity. No other hospitals in the state of Florida are facing such severe funding cuts, according to the report.

Despite these claims, there’s the small acts of kindness from individuals in our community that remind us of the light that resides in our friends and neighbors. Dozens of local funeral homes and religious centers offered free services and burial materials to the families of the 49. A local contractor offered to remodel the bathrooms and other areas of the homes of those who were partially paralyzed that night.

The LGBTQ Alliance hosted a town hall meeting and job fair as recently as this month to provide survivors who were finally ready to go back to work the opportunity to get in front of important employers in Orlando, all of whom were enthusiastic about helping these individual get their lives back on track.

Donations of all kinds flowed in during the days following the the Pulse shooting. Millions of dollars in financial aid, gift cards, medical assistance and other funds came pouring in from sympathizers from around the world. This money, amongst other forms of aid ,did more than just pay bills. The donations offered peace of mind to a community whose entire livelihoods had been interrupted by one single act of hate.

Every dollar donated was a sign of compassion and of encouragement.  Each of these individuals received more than a check. They were gifted with hope, a second chance at a life that many of them thought they had been robbed of. Included in that gift was the love and support of a community, letting them know that their bravery is an inspiration to us all. Their survival is an act of resistance in the face of hate and bigotry. Their spirits fuel us all, reminding us that in the City Beautiful, we are One Heart; they are the literal pulse of this community driving us to love them, ourselves, and one another, with every single beat.

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