George helps welcome the president to Camden

George helps welcome the president to Camden
Msgr. Michael Doyle, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Camden, and Jorge Cartagena wait to greet President Obama at the Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Camden on May 18.

Msgr. Michael Doyle, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Camden, and Jorge Cartagena wait to greet President Obama at the Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Camden on May 18.

Among those who were invited to hear President Obama when he spoke at the Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Camden on May 18 were Msgr. Michael Doyle, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in South Camden, and Jorge Cartagena, who was blinded at the age of 9 in 2011 when he was struck by a stray bullet. Msgr. Doyle wrote the following about Jorge (who prefers to be called George) and his being greeted by the president.

On June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Ala., Helen Keller was born. At six months, she talked. At 12 months, she walked. At 19 months she was stricken with a severe disease believed to be scarlet fever. It wiped away all seeing with her eyes all hearing with her ears and speaking with her tongue. It was devastating. She had been enjoying what these great senses delivered, especially seeing faces and smiles, shapes and colors, for her first year and a half in this world. Then, her wonderfully brilliant mind was trapped in a dungeon of darkness. The world knows the story of her rescue by Anne Sullivan (The Miracle Worker), who was almost blind herself. She lived at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston where she learned tactile sign language, hand touches for an alphabet of felt letters.

Beside Helen Keller’s home in Alabama, the black water pump that Anne Sullivan used while making hand touches for w- a- t- e- r, over and over again on Helen’s hand, is still there. It recalls the miracle when the light went on in Helen’s mind. Slowly. Anne had been spelling many words on Helen’s hand with no success. Now, the letters for water. Her body knew. She understood then that the touches had meaning connected to what was falling on her hands. A great breakthrough of an imprisoned mind. April 5, 1887. An ecstatic Helen quickly learned the palm words for 30 things. She could express herself and nourish the world. “Once I only knew darkness and stillness … but a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness and my heart leaped to the rapture of living.”

In Camden, a boy born on April 24, 2002 had been happily looking at faces and smiles, shapes and colors every day for nine years. On June 27, 2011, (the 131st anniversary of Helen Keller’s birth), Jorge Cartagena of Camden, walking home, was plunged into terrible darkness when his sight was taken away by a drug dealer’s bullet.

In April 2012, I wrote: “On Monday afternoon June 27, 2011, 9-year-old Jorge Cartagena walked across Marlton Pike at Thorndike Street in East Camden on his way home to his grandmother’s apartment to feed his pet parakeets. Suddenly, he heard shots that started behind him between two rival drug dealers. He automatically turned his head to see, and a bullet tore his two eyes into living darkness. The child fell to the ground, and one of the mad gunmen jumped over his body and kept running. A woman passing by took him to Cooper Hospital where he was quickly transferred to Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia. The doctors there diagnosed that his eyes were gone forever. His grandmother, Manuela Pintor, slept beside him for 25 days in the hospital. For Jorge, every day was night. An awful shock to this boy of 9. Initially he said: ‘God hates me,’ and wept in his agony.”

Scott Thomson likes to show a picture of himself receiving a kindergarten diploma at Sacred Heart School in 1977 from a red-haired pastor named Michael Doyle. Today, Scott Thomson is Chief of the Metro Police in Camden. Initially the crime itself connected him to the blinded child. He soon became a friend to Jorge and introduced him to Helene Pierson, then executive director of the Heart of Camden Housing. “I fell in love with him,” and from then on, Helene has been helping him in countless ways.

In April 2012, Jorge and his grandmother, who raised him from birth, relocated to Waterfront South beside Sacred Heart. On June 17, 2012, Jorge (he prefers to be called George) was baptized in Sacred Heart, having chosen Helene Pierson as his godmother, and Chief Thomson as his godfather. He turned 13 in April, 2015 and is in seventh grade in Gateway Regional High School. A much bigger boy now, as he received first holy Communion this year with other children who were much younger and smaller. On that day he asked me to refer to the class of communicants as: “the children and George.” I did. Today he is more at peace with God: “God gave me a second chance.”

Early on Friday morning, May 15, 2015, George’s godfather, now nationally known, asked me to take George to the Salvation Army’s Kroc Center in Camden on Monday, May 18, where President Barack Obama would speak to an invited audience. The Chief got us tickets after clearance from the Secret Service.

George was happy but it was Monday morning before I could pick up the tickets. By then, he was in school taking a math test. He has several Sacred Heart friends besides his godparents, his own “secret service.” Helene Pierson drove him from school to Sacred Heart. Lorna Davis procured his better clothes from his home and was ironing a white shirt. A tie was unearthed in the pastor’s room that he never used, dark purple, going well with the black pants and white shirt. A handsome teen, for sure. Linda Delengowski drove the prince and the priest to the Kroc Center of which Obama said, “It seems like a wonderful, wonderful facility.” It is.

At 12:30 p.m. we were led to assigned chairs beside the Chief and his family. We didn’t mind, waiting. Outside, the day was hot. Inside, good air conditioning. George said, “This place is cool.” The President began speaking at 3:10. Unlike Shakespeare’s Marc Antony, Barack Obama came to Camden to praise it and not to bury it, as many have done with put-down words. On a painting for the occasion named “Invincible Promise” by Artist William Butler of Camden, the President wrote five words: We are proud of Camden, and two beneath them: Barack Obama.

“The city is on to something” the President said, implying that it is finding a better way. But he indicated that it will take a concerted “all hands on deck” effort to change the odds. George listened happily. Words and sounds are the most fulfilling avenues into his able mind.

Finally, Obama came around the low-level skirted semi-circle that separated him from us. George and I were near to it, together with Chief Thomson and his family. As the President came nearer, Scott Thomson took George’s hand and placed it in Barack Obama’s hand, as he whispered in his ear: “George, you are shaking the hand of the President of the United States.”

The Chief: “I will never forget the smile that came on George’s face. It was worth a million bucks.”

No one there who shook the President’s hand could ever know the depth of delight in the blind boy’s heart. He was seeing the President with the feel of his hand in his hand and the sound of a whisper in his ear.

The Little Prince says: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.” On the way home George said: ‘Six words,” then repeated what the President said, “It is great to see you.” The next day, he was heard to say: “I didn’t want to wash my hand.”

Oh, may God protect George! It is not easy to raise a blind teenager anywhere. May the holy and wholesome Helen Keller inspire him all his life.

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