PATERSON - Robert Cuadra did so much good during his life that never made the newspapers.
The 18-year-old helped build homes in Paterson for low-income families, officials said. He participated in charity fundraising walks, collected food and clothes for needy families and fed homeless people during the holidays.
As a high school honors student, he took college classes at Rutgers University and earned a four-year scholarship to Montclair State University through a program for teens facing economic hardship and other adversities.
But now Cuadra is in the headlines, after he was killed by what police say was a stray bullet amid a barrage of 16 gunshots as he carried groceries with his grandmother on a dangerous street in Paterson's crime-ridden 4th Ward on Wednesday night.
"That boy, he had a heart of pure gold," said Cuadra's cousin, Carlos Traverso Jr. "He did not have a malicious bone in his body. He was smiling all the time. He was the true definition of an innocent, good-hearted boy."
Mayor Andre Sayegh said he spoke with Cuadra's mother hours after the shooting.
"He had such a promising future," the mayor said. "This was a tragedy, truly a tragedy. We're determined to bring the murderer or murderers to justice."
Cuadra was a senior at Paterson's HARP Academy, where officials said he embraced the school's motto of "Service Above Self."
"We all mourn the loss of this incredible young man with a tremendously bright future. Everyone loved Robert. There are no words," said HARP Academy Principal Kelli A. White. "He will be missed."
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Paterson Schools Superintendent Eileen Shafer issued a statement detailing the community service work Cuadra performed as a teenager.
"Robert Cuadra was a dedicated honors student who looked forward to starting the next chapter of his life in college this fall," Shafer said. "Robert cared for his family, and the reports that he was fatally shot while delivering groceries to his grandmother's home speak to his character and add to the bitterness of his being taken away from us."
Cuadra and his grandmother were outside her home on Godwin Avenue with her groceries at about 6:30 p.m. when gunfire erupted, the mayor said. The teen saw his grandmother fall to the ground and he was struck by a bullet when he rushed over to her, Sayegh said the victim's mother told him.
The grandmother was not hit by any of the gunfire, authorities said. Authorities found Cuadra lying on the sidewalk and he was pronounced dead at the hospital soon afterward.
Cuadra's mother, Ivernis Santiago, said during an interview with ABC News that she was inside the home and heard the gunshots. Santiago said during the television interview that Cuadra's 8-year-old brother heard the gunfire and ran to the window. Santiago said she told the little boy that the noise was fireworks. Cuadra had two other younger brothers, including an infant, his cousin said.
Cuadra was killed as Paterson - like many cities around the country - endures its worst outbreak of violence in more than 30 years. The city set homicide records in 2020 with 27 killings and again in 2021 with 29.
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This year has started worse than the previous two. There have been seven shootings and two homicides in Paterson through the first 20 days of 2022. In comparison, Paterson had four shootings and one homicide in both January 2020 and January 2021.
Six of this year's shootings have happened in the city's 4th Ward, the section of Paterson where Cuadra lived.
The family has lived on Godwin Avenue for about four years, largely because they could not afford the rents in safer parts of Paterson, Traverso said.
The boy's mother works at The Brownstone catering hall, Traverso said. Cuadra also sometimes worked at the Brownstone, according to the mayor.
The teen was looking forward to college and improving his life, Traverso said.
"He was trying to live better than being in the ghetto," said the cousin.
Joe Malinconico is editor of Paterson Press. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Paterson NJ: Teen killed by stray bullet in shooting mourned