Channel 9 takes a closer look at Orlando’s hire to facilitate Pulse memorial project

ORLANDO, Fla. — The City of Orlando announced last week it was hiring Dr. Larry Schooler to coordinate with Pulse shooting survivors and victims’ families on what they envision for the Pulse memorial.


Several Pulse survivors and victims’ families have voiced their skepticism of the city bringing in a third party because of the history they’ve had with the now-dissolved onePULSE Foundation.

“I want to say I’m keeping an open mind, but I’m very hesitant,” said Tiara Parker, a Pulse survivor, speaking of the changes.

Because of the criticism surrounding the project, Channel 9 looked at other projects the facilitator has worked on. We looked into how the process worked and what Pulse survivors and families can expect in the months ahead.

Virginia Beach Memorial

Virginia Beach’s 5/31 Memorial is one of the most recent projects Schooler has worked on. Schooler said while working on the Virginia Beach project, he consulted with groups in Sandy Hook and Las Vegas on their memorial process.

Jason Nixon was one of the family members Schooler worked with in Virginia Beach.

May 31 will mark five years since Jason Nixon lost his wife, Kate. A gunman opened fire at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center where she worked, killing 11 employees and a contractor.

Read: How new PULSE Memorial consultant plans to heal community, build memorial

“Kate was my everything. She was my wife, mother of our three children. A rock star engineer,” Nixon said.

He says making sure a memorial was built to honor his wife’s life has been the most important thing for him and his three daughters. Their youngest daughter was just 18 months old when Kate was killed.

“When the mass shooting happened there was a lot of emotions, and you want to do the memorial right, respectfully -- and morbidly, you want to make sure that people know what happened that day and never forget it.,” Nixon said. “But, in that process, everybody wants something for themselves, you know.”

Read: City of Orlando hires third party to lead Pulse Memorial project

Nixon says survivors, families and politicians all had differing opinions on what the memorial should look like. That’s why he says Virginia Beach brought in a third-party firm, including Dr. Larry Schooler.

He says there was skepticism among victims’ families towards the city paying to bring in a facilitator. It’s much like how many Pulse survivors and victims’ families say they feel.

Nixon says, without bringing in a facilitator, he believes the families, survivors and community would have never been able to choose a final memorial design.

“Not everything went smoothly,” Nixon said, describing the disagreements families had. “But Larry brought us back on track. You know, sometimes we would sway out like with these extravagant ideals. Larry, as a facilitator came in there, and he helped manage and organize it.”

Nixon said over the course of a year, they filled out surveys, took part in small group meetings, and also received input from the community. In the end, they chose a design including a reflecting pool that leads to a memorial wall, displaying the names of the 12 victims. 150 lights will turn on to symbolize the 150 years of combined public service from those lost.

“There’s a lot of symbolism behind it. And to me, that’s important for me and my children,” Nixon said. “I would say the majority of the families were very happy. But like I said, there’s going to be a few that aren’t happy.”

Pulse Survivors and Victims’ Families Skeptical

Nearly eight years after 49 people were killed inside the Pulse Nightclub, there is still no permanent memorial.

“I have never had a place that I could go to… I have nowhere I can go to think about my son,” said Christine Leinonen, the mother of Christopher Leinonen, who was killed at the Pulse Nightclub. “Every time I’m at the actual Pulse site, I get even more disgusted. I don’t feel calm or at peace.”

Leinonen has been outspoken about the skepticism she has toward the City of Orlando taking on the memorial process.

“For them to say that there’s going to be doing a proper memorial…. Well, if you walked hand-in-hand for over seven years, with culpable parties, parties who exploited the shooting who there’s never been an investigation as to their culpability. Here you are walking hand in hand with them for all those years,” said Christine Leinonen, speaking about her feelings toward onePULSE Foundation and the nonprofit’s relationship with the City of Orlando.

Read: Leaked financial documents show OnePULSE fundraising shortfalls

Survivors like Tiara Parker echo those concerns. Parker says she and others already took part in questionnaires and meetings when onePULSE Foundation was in charge of the project. She spoke of the pain survivors will have to relive now that the city is starting from square one.

“You’re talking about undoing eight years. There’s damage that’s been done emotionally to the survivors and the victims’ families of what was supposed to happen [with the memorial project], and years and millions of dollars being spent, and nothing,” Parker said. “And now we’re going to spend more dollars to hire someone to come in and be a voice for us, essentially, because that’s what it seems like.”

Parker says she’s concerned survivors’ voices won’t be heard-- like how she says it felt for her when onePULSE Foundation led the project. Because of this, Parker says she’s hesitant to trust the City and the third-party facilitator, but she’s trying to keep an open mind.

Schooler told Channel 9 he acknowledges several survivors and family members are skeptical of the process. He says trust-building starts now.

“There’s really only one way to develop trust, and that’s through deeds through actions. So obviously, part of that involves my communicating with them. That is my form of action in some cases. But what I want them to see is that I keep my word to them,” Schooler said.

Leinonen described how she envisions the memorial. A place, she said, people can relax and reflect on the gravity of the massacre and reflect on their own life.

“What are they doing to make things better for in either small ways, medium, or great ways?,” Leinonen said. “If they go there, and it calms them, and they feel more at peace, then my son, his memorial would have been his purpose. So that would be what I think he would want.”

Parker says she pictures the memorial as a place where people can not only see the names of the victims-- but are able to read their stories.

“Gaining more history about those people and allowing them to be showcased in a more positive light,” Parker said.

Parker says there are many differing opinions among survivors and the families. She says a mediator could help lead them to a clear decision.

Pulse Memorial Project

Schooler told Channel 9 his team will begin holding small group conversations with Pulse survivors and victims’ families in the next month.

Right now, Schooler says he and the city are receiving responses from survivors and families on whether they are interested in taking part in the memorial planning process.

Based on responses, he and his team will figure out the best process to receive input from those most impacted by the Pulse tragedy.

“What I’m trying to do at this phase is get a feel for the experience that these families and survivors have had up to now, and how they would like to see the process go moving forward. Because anytime you’re designing something that’s sensitive, you really want to make sure that you’re doing it in a way that is going to meet their needs. And every community’s needs are different, every person’s needs are different. And I don’t want to make assumptions just based on prior experience somewhere else,” Schooler said.

He acknowledged the difference this project had with others he’s worked on-- including how many of the victims’ families and survivors now live in cities across the country and many in Latin America.

Schooler told Channel 9 his team will ensure there are translators to be able to communicate with Spanish-speaking families and survivors.

The goal, he says, is to have a solidified process by June on how the public can participate in surveys or public meetings.

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