The first of a series of interviews in which we meet people who help keep HOPE alive.
Josh Garcia was the operations manager of Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on June 12, 2016, when it became the site of one of the worst mass shootings in US history and the deadliest incident in the history of violence against LGBTQ people in the nation’s history. It was a night where forty-nine people lost their lives, and fifty-three more were wounded.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Josh received a star of HOPE, setting him on a journey that would one day lead to his becoming executive director of Stars of HOPE.
This is Josh’s story.
Where were you when you learned what happened at Pulse?
My friend and I had been to another popular LGBTQ bar that evening to catch up and relax. We nearly went to Pulse, but because I worked there and had been there the previous week, I needed a change of scenery.
Fast forward a few hours to 2:15 am when I received a phone call from my boss, who was away on vacation. My first thoughts were, ‘What’s wrong? Did a pipe bust somewhere? And how did she know before I did?’
When I answered the phone, the tone in her voice, better described as the terror in her voice, immediately told me this wasn’t a pipe. Something was seriously wrong. She said, “The managers called and they’re hiding. Someone shot a gun in the club.”
I was currently on my way home, minutes away from the nightclub. I sped down Orange Avenue passing every red light, but I didn’t prepare myself for what I was heading to. No one could’ve imagined.
Immediately, I ran towards the building, hearing the loud shots being fired repeatedly. I began to pull others away from the building, feeling hopeless and helpless. It felt as if I blinked my eyes, and there was a sea of red and blue flashing lights. To this day, I can only piece sections of 2:15 am – 9 am through personal memories and stories from others about what I did.
Do you remember what you did afterwards?
I made my way back home and figured out how to break into my apartment. My car, wallet, and keys were all at the crime scene. I sat in a small chair and curled into a ball. I hadn’t heard from friends who might have been inside and was still learning who’d been taken from us. I kept my eyes glued to the news, thinking of the victims’ parents who stood outside the Orlando Police Department with pictures of their children.
I kept asking myself, ‘How did this happen? Did this happen?’ I thought it was all a nightmare, and it wasn’t real. As I watched the news and listened to the helicopters around my apartment, I just wanted it to be fake. This was followed by guilt for not doing more, for still being here.
I look back now and realize the first vigil at Dr. Phillips was just days after, it felt like a week, but then I lost all track of time. I did not know what time it was or the day of the week. A day felt like a week, yet a week felt like an hour.
How did it affect you?
I could not eat or sleep at all for the first thirty days. I couldn’t remember simple tasks at work. I would walk around with a notebook to jot down notes from my thoughts a minute ago. I knew myself to be intelligent, productive, and organized, but I didn’t feel this way anymore.
I would sit on the Pulse Facebook page and respond to every message sent worldwide. My apartment turned into a fulfillment center for online t-shirt orders. I cried, paced in circles, became paranoid, checked my closets, and made sure my doors were locked every ten minutes. I would sit and tell myself to stop. I knew no one was in my closet, but I had to check. I hid what I was going through from everyone, including my family, who kept asking me to come home for a bit because I had to be strong and make sure everyone else was ok.
How did you cope with the emotional trauma?
My life became about taking care of anyone who was affected. Driving sometimes at one a.m. to go over paperwork with a shooting victim or drop off care packages. Looking back now, I probably should not have been driving, seeing that I couldn’t even remember my thoughts. I went into what I call “Robot Mode.”
A few weeks after, I was approached by two boys and their mother at my office. They came in with these stars painted with messages of inspiration to stay strong. It was the first time I cried with a stranger. But this time, it wasn’t from pain; it was because when I said thank you to these two kids, they responded with, “We wanted to let you know we were thinking about you, and we care.”
These two kids and their mother bought the light back into my life. I took the rest of that day off to reflect on what I was doing to take care of myself.
Is this how you first learned about Stars of HOPE?
Yes, but it wasn’t the last.
The next day, I was approached by three women – one impacted by 9/11, one from Weston, CT, whose community was affected by the tragic Sandy Hook Shooting, and another from a community in Georgia whose community was hit by a tornado. They came carrying boxes of Stars of HOPE created by local community members at Loews Hotel Universal and shared their stories with me.
They were there to deliver stars throughout Orlando – to first responders, victims, families, and local community leaders. I invited them to follow me to the venue to meet Pulse’s staff members. Once we arrived, I introduced the ladies, and they shared the story of Stars of HOPE and their personal stories. As I watched staff members going through to pick out their stars, I began to see small smiles. It was so simple, a reminder of kindness, love, and hope. A piece of art to inspire daily resilience.
What lasting impact from Stars of HOPE have you observed?
Years later, I hear multiple stories from the Orlando community members, Pulse staff, and survivors about how they keep their star on their nightstand or hanging on a wall at home to inspire them daily to keep moving forward. Stars of HOPE were also used to honor each of the forty-nine angels on the Pulse Orlando float for Orlando Pride and on the six-month mark remembrance ceremony.
To this day, the community of Orlando creates Stars of HOPE to both continue healing and pay it forward for struggling communities or individuals. They responded with hope to other communities in Manchester, London, Las Vegas, Charlottesville, Puerto Rico, Parkland, Santa Fe, Santa Rosa, San Francisco, and Noblesville.
One thousand Stars of Hope were created for the two-year mark project at the Orlando United Assistance Center sponsored by KPMG, LLP., and the 4.9k Community Rainbow Run.
What message do you have for those affected by mass tragedies?
On one of my missions to deliver hope, I was able to speak to hospital staff and first responders in Las Vegas three days after the tragic shooting with messages created by Orlando and San Bernardino. My words were simple: “We are all human, and we all hurt the same way. These Stars of HOPE were created by other communities impacted by tragedy and individuals thinking about you. Please take these as a daily reminder of hope.”
We walked around the hospital handing out stars. Some were vocal with appreciation; others silently read their star and held onto them tight. Our escort through the hospital kept getting calls for us to visit their department. We walked through the hospital for seven hours—delivering stars to first responders, hospital staff, survivors, and family members.
After the Pulse shooting, Orlando received an immense amount of love worldwide. Stars of HOPE helped me jump the grieving cycle, realize that love is stronger than hate, and reminded me of kindness. During my missions on delivering hope, I realized that everyone shares one common trait: a natural or human-caused tragedy—the feeling of being alone. Stars of HOPE reminds others dealing with a difficult time: they are not alone!
Josh Garcia is the Executive Director of Stars of HOPE. If you’d like to get involved with making stars that heal emotional trauma in survivors all over the world, please click here.