ORLANDO—Grievance counselor Maria Fontaine stood in front of the classroom at Valencia College on Wednesday to address the empty chair in the room.
The tourism and hospitality course, which has slightly more than a dozen students, is finishing up summer school classes and preparing for finals next week. So it's unusual for anyone to miss class at this point in the semester.
But Wednesday was the first class meeting since the June 12 massacre at the Pulse nightclub. The empty chair belonged to Mercedez Marisol Flores, a 26-year-old student who was one of 49 victims—and one of seven Valencia College students— killed on the dance floor.
Though the hallways at the community college have fewer students during the summer sessions, on Wednesday many of those students had tears in their eyes as they walked into the classroom.
“There were tears and anger," said Fontaine, a behavioral health therapist who visited the class to tell students about the mental health resources available to them after the shooting. "Students said [Mercedez’s death] was just so unfair.”
The grievance counselors initially planned to address the students briefly at the beginning of class before they prepped for finals, but everyone lost track of time when one student reminded the class that Mercedez had shared the same dreams of going into the hospitality and tourism industry. The comments brought everyone in the room to tears, including the professor.
"Many of us are wounded healers," said Fontaine, a licensed clinician with Baycare Hospital in Tampa who drove to Orlando to be part of the crisis response team at the college.
"The magnitude of the shooting has been significant for everyone. How could we not experience the grief that others are feeling?" Fontaine said.
The community college hosted several events on Wednesday to allow students to share their feelings and mourn together. The school teamed up with BayCare Behavioral Health, which provided a dedicated phone line to respond to students' needs.
The college also made services available for professors.
English composition professor Rudy Darden said he scanned the list of victims on Sunday, hoping no students were among the dead. But realistically he knew there were probably students and professors among the victims.
"Cory was on that list," Darden said, exhaling sharply.
Cory James Connell, a 21-year-old student, was at Pulse's Latin Night party on Saturday with his girlfriend, who was one of the 54 people who were shot but survived. Tragically Cory was one of the seven Valencia students on the other list.
The Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) group on campus set up a table in front of the library on Wednesday where students could honor victims of the massacre by writing their names on a chain made of construction paper. A 17-year-old member of the GSA stood by with a sign advertising free hugs.
Other students participated in “healing circles,” discussions where the students address their feelings and fears. Some students broke down in tears, or nodded at each other in silent commiseration.
Valencia College is a two-year college with 68,000 students who are enrolled in classes on five campuses across Orlando. The student body, according to the school, is around 32% Latino, 32% white and 18% African-American.
Many of the students have jobs, and several said they worked at nearby amusement parks, including Universal Studios and Disney World. One young woman described the difficulty of having to go to work on Sunday and putting on a happy face for tourists.
Most students were only one or two degrees removed from the tragedy; everyone said they knew someone who was a good friend of a victim.
Some students expressed guilt, and said they had planned to go to Pulse that night but bailed for whatever reason at the last minute.
As the students grieve, they're also focusing on how their community has grown closer through tragedy.
"It fills me with an unfathomable level of pride for this community, just seeing how in times of crisis people are putting away their differences and coming together for a greater understanding," said GSA president Jorge Lanza, who describes himself as "a balling mess of fur underneath his thick skin."
"Let’s keep dancing, let's not stop what we love doing," said the 23-year-old nursing student.