ORLANDO, Fla. -- Two years ago, a deadly shooting at Pulse nightclub shattered the Central Florida community. But since then, the healing process has been a beacon of change.
- Much has changed in Orlando community since Pulse tragedy
- Community leaders reflect on what they saw, what has happened
- FULL COVERAGE OF PULSE REMEMBERED:
Earlier this year, George Wallace, the longtime executive director of Orlando Fringe, took the helm at The Center, which conducts outreach to and programming for the LGBT+ community.
"I think the tragedy was a catalyst of change in the way that the LGBT community was viewed," Wallace said. "We need to continue to advocate and educate our community."
After the shooting -- which took the lives of 49 people -- Wallace, then serving on the board for The Center, headed to the Mills Avenue community center to see what needed to be done. He wasn't alone: Hundreds gathered, distributing water and food; speakers held impromptu news conferences as media from around the world flocked.
It was the post-crisis nerve center.
"The community came together and rallied," Wallace recalled. "I remember the lines at the blood bank, the lines at The Center."
At The Center
Soon, The Center was on the map, bursting at the seams. One of the largest health testing agencies in Central Florida, Wallace said they began seeing about 600 people each month come through the doors for HIV testing. The Center is one of the only places to offer free testing for sexually-transmitted infections, staffed by the Health Department, five days a week, in addition to hepatitis C testing, counseling and clinical support groups.
"A lot of people have said, 'What's the relevance of having an LGBT community center?' And I think that following Pulse, the answer was really clear," Wallace said.
The Center began a massive renovation of two adjacent spaces, which they hope to complete by late September. The first phase completed through a city grant, the second funded by more than $1 million in donations following the shooting.
And soon, they'll expanding for the first time outside the Mills District location, heading to Kissimmee to connect with the Latinx community there. Wallace said Tuesday -- two years to the day of the Pulse massacre -- that the organization just signed the lease.
"We're opening up a secondary location, partially in response to the Pulse tragedy," Wallace said. "Any given week, between 10 percent and 30 percent, depending on the service, we're seeing coming from Osceola County because we're tracking ZIP codes."
At the Orange County Sheriff's Office
Moving forward isn't always easy, especially if you were there -- or if your birthday now falls on the date of such a tragedy, as Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings' does.
"I spend my day on that anniversary going to public events and dealing with the memory and paying the proper respect," Demings said.
He's pleased to see tolerance for diversity has grown. Demings said the Sheriff's Office is better prepared with beefed up training, necessary equipment to respond to an active shooter situation and enhanced information sharing, working across jurisdictional boundaries "to understand enemies."
"In order for us to be most effective at stopping a future attack from occurring, we've had to increase our analytical capabilities," he said.
This year, the Florida Legislature passed a bill for to provide benefits to first responders afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder -- a fight championed by firefighters, police officers and their allies for many months.
Demings said that it's not enough.
"We have been advocates for new laws that compensate public safety officers if they encounter a traumatic event like this," he said. "We have inadequate dollars in the state of Florida, in our local community, dedicated to mental health treatment. I think that's critical that we have to provide that."
Many of his deputies saw much that fateful evening in June 2016. Demings said that they're doing well, though a few were met with challenges.
"I had some brand-new deputy sheriffs, though, who hadn't even been deployed, in their first week of training," he recalled. "And I had a couple of them resign."
At the Orlando Police Department
"Right afterward, we had many, many applicants who wanted to become police officers," said Orlando Police Chief John Mina, speaking of the days, weeks and months which followed Pulse. "I think as far as the police department, our connection with the community has grown since Pulse."
Mina said that the morning of the attack, he got the call between 2 and 3 a.m., learning of a shooting at the nightclub on South Orange Avenue. He recalls grabbing an extra uniform because he knew he was in for a long day.
But, Mina was soon hit with the magnitude of what happened, knowing of the high death toll hours before the rest of the media, community and world did.
"Many of our officers had been even overseas, Afghanistan, Middle East, multiple deployments. And they told me they had never seen anything like it," he said.
Nor had Mina.
"I went home and hugged my family," he said.
Since then, the bandshell at Lake Eola has been painted in rainbow colors. Murals popped up around The City Beautiful with phrases such as "You mattered." Colorful, Pulse-inspired pieces of art have been tacked onto the walls of the new Orlando Police Department headquarters on West South Street downtown.
Mina said he notices different nuances in the artwork daily.
"I think about that night, I think about the victims, almost every single day. There's constant reminders around here," he said.
He knows the incident still affects his officers and credits employee assistance programs, counseling and links to programs such as UCF Restores with keeping his team on track.
But, he said the department's mission hasn't changed.
"I think for us as a department, unfortunately, we always have to be prepared for the next event," he said.
"These officers risk their lives for strangers. It's what they do. They're very proud to be the protectors of this community, so that doesn't change. That's going to continue."