In 2011, Faye Corman was rushing through a New Jersey train station after a visit to the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia with her 3-year-old blind son, Jon Paul, when the boy suddenly stopped to stare at the platform’s concrete floor.
“Jon Paul, let’s go! We need to hurry and get home,” Faye recalls telling him while urging him to keep moving. Just when she was thinking that she might have to scoop him up in her arms, something incredible happened: Jon Paul reached down and picked up a shiny silver gum wrapper.
And that’s when Faye knew.
The son that she and her husband, Michael, had recently adopted from an orphanage in China could finally see. Although surgeons at Wills had been skeptical about a positive outcome, Jon Paul’s innocent gum wrapper examination proved his second eye operation was a success.
Now, five years later, Jon Paul, 8, is preparing to compete in gymnastics this weekend at New Jersey’s statewide Special Olympics. It’s a feat that few could have imagined for a boy who just years before had been bumping into walls and falling down stairs.
“After the eye surgeons worked their magic, his life completely changed,” Faye, 43, a chemist in Barrington, New Jersey, tells PEOPLE. “They not only changed his life, they gave him one. Witnessing Jon Paul’s transformation has been amazing.”
Since 2002, Faye has been married to Michael, 52, an attorney and musician who was born blind.
“We met on a blind date,” jokes Faye.
The pair had already adopted one child from China, Camille, now 11, when they learned about the 3-year-old with shiny, dark eyes.
Michael, the first blind student to graduate with a juris doctorate degree from Rutgers University Law School, was eager to adopt Jon Paul, knowing that he could teach him to read braille and find his way in a sighted world.
“I was so grateful and delighted to become the father to a child who happens to be blind, because I could guide him in the ways, norms and mores of thriving, and not just surviving as a person who happens to be blind,” Michael tells PEOPLE.
He and Faye flew to Fuzhou, 400 miles northeast of Hong Kong, to bring Jon Paul home. Within days of arriving back in New Jersey, they took their new son to the internationally known Wills Eye Hospital to have him examined.
“We honestly thought that the doctor would say, ‘He’s a cute kid, but he’s never going to be able to see anything,’ ” Faye tells PEOPLE. “But the fact that they were willing to try gave us hope.”
Doctors were skeptical at first, though, whether their best efforts would be a success.
“When I first met Jon Paul, his vision was so bad that he could barely see light and had to use hands to feel around as he entered the room, to find his way,” Dr. Alex V. Levin, Chief of Pediatric Ophthalmology and Ocular Genetics at Wills Eye Hospital, tells PEOPLE. “One eye was completely shrunken and blind and his other eye had a severe cataract. After many thoughtful discussions, we decided to take the chance and do surgery on his only functional [left] eye.”
When the patches came off and Jon Paul didn’t indicate that he could see, Faye took her son home, praying that his vision would eventually “kick in.”
Then when the incident with the gum wrapper happened: “I just stood there and cried,” she says. “It was a miracle, a gift.”
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Curious about what activities Jon Paul might enjoy, Faye enrolled him in a Special Olympics “young athletes” program, where he learned everything from how to shoot a basketball and hold a hockey stick to run through an obstacle course and jump on a trampoline. Then, after he turned 8 last December, she put him in a gymnastics class and it quickly became evident that he had a future in the sport.
“He picked it up really fast and just loved it,” says Faye, “so we decided to see if could qualify for the state games. When he made it his very first time out, we couldn’t believe it.”
“I love gymnastics because I get to do tricks and my coaches are nice,” said Jon Paul, who is finishing up the second grade.
He now excels at the pommel horse and rings. Although still legally blind because he can only see people at close distances, physical therapy lessons at school five days a week have helped him to develop incredible upper body strength, says his mom.
“He’d never have been able to do something like this if he couldn’t see,” Faye tells PEOPLE, “and for that, we’re so grateful.
“How do you possibly thank somebody for restoring your son’s eyesight?” she adds. “There are simply no words.”