Robot allows Saco student to go to school

By Liz Gotthelf, Journal Tribune

SACO — Students in Heidi Brewer’s eighth-grade English class were assigned to discuss the short stories they had read in small groups. Students Olivia Paradis, Fayth Nedeau and Hayley Desjardins were grouped together and began to discuss their stories.

Their group was like any other group in the class, with one exception – Desjardins was participating from home through a VGo robot.

Desjardins who has aplastic anemia, had a relapse last year after a more than five-year remission. Aplasticanemia is a bone marrow failure disease that results in low red blood cells, white cells, and platelets.

Desjardins received a cord blood transplant earlier this year. Her body has accepted the transplant and she is making new cells, but because her immune system is compromised, she is under strict guidelines regarding visitors and contact with other people, according to a press release from Delete Blood Cancer DKMS.

Desjardins said she cannot be in public indoor spaces because of the risk of germs. She has been able to socialize outside with friends, and has been to a corn maze, trick or treating and a football game.

Through the use of the VGo robot, Desjardins is taking English and math classes at Thornton Academy Middle School.

“Being connected to school is definitely important to me,” said Desjardins.

The long, elegantly-styled white robot has a video screen on the top, allowing Desjardins to video conference with her class. Her teacher and classmates can see her on the screen on the robot, and she can control the robot through her keyboard at home, moving it around to change her view of the classroom.

It took some practice, but Desjardins clearly is getting the hang of maneuvering the robot, given the ease of how she appeared to move it through the classroom Thursday.

“I’m pretty used to it,” said Desjardins in an interview after English class Thursday. “I can get around pretty good. I’ve gotten better at not hitting things.”

“It’s great,” said Brewer. “It took a little while to get into a groove.” Brewer says she leaves her laptop open during class, and Desjardins can text her and let her know if she’s stepping away from her laptop for a few minutes to go to the bathroom. Brewer said she emails Desjardins class handouts, often taking pictures of them with her phone, and Desjardins can email her completed assignments.

“It’s amazing, absolutely amazing,” said Principal Tiffany Robert. “She’s a member of the learning community.”

The VGo robot has been provided by Grahamtastic Connection, a Sanford based non-profit that provides technology to hospitalized or home bound children. Leslie Morissette founded Gramtastic Connection in 1998, after her son Graham died of cancer. Morissette, a former graphic designer, said at the time, there was no Internet access in the hospital. Morissette said she is happy to be able to provide Hayley the technology to continue school while she is at home.

Morissette said the $6,000 robot that Desjardins is using was donated by Prime Motor Group owner Ira Rosenberg three years ago. Children who are in long-term hospital care or are house bound due to illness can apply to use one of the Grahamtastic’s six VGo robots, said Morissette. Currently, all six robots are being used, she said.