After a stray bullet plunged Jorge into darkness last June, he was consumed by pain and rage. No one then could have foreseen his despair giving way to all these smiles.
But these days, the boy wears his blindness lightly. And he is surrounded by loving adults who find his courage inspirational.
At Bank Bridge Elementary, the special-needs school in Gloucester County where Jorge enrolled in September, principal Guy Davidson says the boy is one of his happiest students.
At school, Jorge uses a cane, has an aide, and takes braille lessons. In class, he raises his hand often; on the playground, he is fearless on the jungle gym but allows a classmate to lead him to the swings.
Every week, Stephanie Ziccardi, a single mother drawn to his story, takes Jorge to Sidekicks, a martial-arts school in Sewell. There, owner Brandon Gilmore gives him free karate lessons and is "excited to see what he can do."
So is Helene Pierson, executive director of the Heart of Camden, whom Jorge calls "H.P.," and who consented to be his godmother. Pierson met the boy through Thomson.
"Scott found out where he lived," she says, "and I came and met and fell in love with Jorge."
Pierson helped get a new home for him and Manuela Pintor, the grandmother who has raised him from infancy.
In a week, Jorge and Pintor will move from the East Camden neighborhood where Jorge was shot to a renovated rowhouse in South Camden, steps from Sacred Heart. The construction was funded by the Neighborhood Stimulus Program and the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation, and Heart of Camden - using money raised at a benefit gala last year - will hold the mortgage.
Pintor, who is on disability, will make monthly payments to Heart of Camden to ultimately own the three-bedroom rowhouse.
"The move," says Pierson, "could change what Jorge's life could be."
Pintor is excited. "That house," she says, "is bangin'!"
On a recent Sunday, Jorge dined at the Pub in Pennsauken with Thomson, Thomson's wife, Zabrina, and their sons, Jack, 9, and Drew, 5. They had come from the Please Touch Museum, where Jorge dropped to the floor to show them how many push-ups he could do.
"I keep on asking him," says Drew, "how did he get shot in the eye?"
"That's not a bad question," says Jorge.
"What did it feel like?"
"I didn't really feel it," says Jorge, "and I got shot in my temple, not my eye. Want to feel the bullet hole?"
Jorge calls Thomson his "homey," and Thomson calls Jorge "Robin to my Batman." They talk on the phone twice a day.
"I tell him," says Thomson, " 'Jorge, listen: It's OK to be scared. I've been shot at, I have bad dreams too. Don't be embarrassed.' "
Hilary Katz, a social worker at Bank Bridge, and her coworkers find it ironic that before he was shot, Jorge was reportedly having behavior problems at school. "He was a kid falling through the cracks," she says.
"Now he has all these resources. I know this sounds crazy, but we've all talked about how it's been a blessing in disguise."
To read April Saul's original article about Jorge Cartagena, go to www.philly.com/jorge . It was
a finalist for the American Society of News Editors' community service photojournalism award,
and won honorable mention in the Dart Awards for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma.
Contact April Saul at 215-854-2872