Justin Thompson had just gotten his learner’s permit.
His parents’ only cause for concern at the time was the thought of their newly-minted 16 year old one day hitting the roads solo.
But all slated plans to drive, to land a starting spot in varsity soccer, to lead a normal teenage life, came screeching to a halt in October 2011 when the Springfield Gardens teen was shot in the back.
“In my mind, as a parent, I thought driving would be the next worry, the next hurdle,” Donald Thompson said. “This shows you life throws you some unexpected things.”
Justin and his friends were leaving a party in Cambria Heights when they suddenly saw a herd of people running “in all kinds of directions.”
“All hell broke loose,” the family said.
There was a shot fired, and Justin felt a burning in his back before losing his legs and hitting the ground.
The bullet — traveling from the right to left side of Justin’s back — was embedded in his armpit. It bruised, but did not sever, his spinal cord, doctors said.
Now, Justin is paralyzed below the waist.
“We hope it’s temporary,” Donald said. “But no doctor will say he’ll never walk again and no doctor will say he’ll be up and running by tomorrow.”
Still, his family said “since day one, his spirits have been high,” and that eternal positive attitude is something they are grateful for.
“We’re trying to keep our heads up, but sometimes you just want to break down,” Donald told The Courier. “But when you see Justin and his positive attitude, you can’t help but smile.”
Justin is currently undergoing a rigorous rehabilitation routine and is being home schooled, the family said. He will begin physical therapy soon.
But though most services are covered by insurance, the family has suffered pricey expenses, including a wheelchair ramp installed outside their home that cost $4,200.
The family is also seeking standard at-home machinery to keep Justin’s muscles ready “for when the nerves in his legs decide to wake up.” But if insurance doesn’t cover the equipment, the family can expect to shell out up to $20,000.
“It’s so important in his rehabilitation, and it’s still being tossed around. It’s kind of up in the air,” Donald said about the equipment coverage. “It’s just a life-changing experience. You had a healthy 16 year old playing soccer and basketball, and now — due to an unprovoked act — we’re dealing with this.”
To help with costs, Justin’s school — Archbishop Molloy High School in Briarwood — hosted a fundraiser on February 3, which has raised more than $30,000 so far for the family.
“It was so moving and emotional. The school’s efforts were unreal,” Donald said. “It’s just a great school and a great family-oriented place. When one of their students is in need, everyone comes forward. They’re really great people.”
While Justin continues to be courageous, his family will continue to keep their heads up.
“He’s been a real trooper. He’s really displayed such courage. It brings tears to my eyes,” Donald said. “No matter what the doctor says, he’ll be up and running and back in the hallways.”
And when that time comes, school officials will welcome him back with open arms.
“He’s a wonderful kid and a good player,” said Mike McCleary, the school’s athletic director, who said Justin remarkably managed to balance playing both varsity soccer and junior varsity basketball before the injury. “It was really a terrible thing that he was a victim of a senseless crime. Whether or not he gets on the field in time for his high school career, I just want him to be able to walk again.”
Meanwhile, the NYPD is offering a $12,000 reward to find Justin’s shooter. Anyone with information is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 800-577-TIPS.
Donations to “Guidance Fund – Justin Thompson” can also be mailed to Archbishop Molloy High School, located at 83-53 Manton Street in Briarwood. Call 718-441-9210 for more information.