Robot inspires Mohawk grad to help others

When Cris Colaluca graduates Tuesday, a part of him will stay behind at Mohawk Area High School.

Owned by the district, the VGo robotic telepresence device that Cris has used since seventh grade to attend school remotely, remains at Mohawk ready to aid another student.

But graduation doesn’t end the 19-year-old’s relationship with VGo.

His Go Fund Me page, developed as part of his senior project to purchase robots for use by patients at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, remains active.

With a balance yesterday of a little over $5,400, Cris hopes to raise enough to allow him to provide one more robot for Children’s as well as a unit for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. That’s in addition to the two VGos he donated in last month with funding assistance from Verizon Business Markets and recording artist Jimmy Wade. That pair joined the robot Cris presented to Children’s in October 2015 when Make-A-Wish of Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia fulfilled his dream.

“For him to pay it forward and donate his wish for others was so incredible,” noted Lorree Houk, assistant to the superintendent at Mohawk. “It tells you what kind of kid he is.”

EARLY YEARS

For Cris, who hopes to use a VGo to attend college, a variety of medical conditions, including spina bifida and a rare seizure disorder, left him physically unable to attend school after first grade.

The Bessemer resident had to rely on homebound instruction that, despite efforts to incorporate technology such as Skype, left him feeling isolated. As a result, his education suffered.

That changed when Houk and Theresa McConnell, Mohawk’s technology director, and learned about the VGo. Controlled by a laptop and mouse at the Colaluca home, the VGo features a camera and microphone that allow Cris to see, be seen and “travel” from classroom to classroom at Mohawk. Students and teachers can view Cris on the robot’s “face,” while he can see his teachers and classmates on his home computer.

“It definitely did its job,” noted Nick Maiorano, Cris’ educator-in-the-home who works as liaison between the Colaluca family and the school.

“What’s neat is seeing how much he understands and recognizes places in the building when he is here, although he usually just sees it through the VGo,” Maiorano said, adding with a laugh that after three years in his position, “I still get lost sometimes.”

MAKING STRIDES

At the time Mohawk acquired the VGo unit for Cris, he was believed to be the second student in the U.S. attending school via robot. According school officials, he will be the first in the state and second in the country to graduate using a VGo.

“It’s an amazing instructional tool,” Houk said. “The wonder of technology has really been a blessing for us. Having the VGo has been a great experience not only for Cris, but also for the other students to experience diversity.”

While no Mohawk pupil has been specifically identified to use the robot one-on-one in the future, it has been “borrowed” by others on homebound instruction for short-term events, including a student undergoing treatment for leukemia who was able to celebrate a birthday with classmates via robot.

“With technology you never know, but anything that can make students’ lives better is worth a shot,” McConnell remarked.

“I never thought something like this would work, but it did,” added Cris who will miss jokingly “blinding” teachers and classmates by flashing VGo’s lights into their faces when they peer into the robot’s screen.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

In the countless hours Terry Colaluca has spent researching colleges for her youngest child, she’s found only one – Fullerton College in California – that permits a student using a VGo to attend classes.

“Most of the colleges have balked at the idea,” Terry said. “Sometimes there are legitimate concerns, like who’s in charge of caring for the robot, but often they ask how they can tell Cris isn’t cheating and having someone else do the work. Most of these schools offer online classes, how do they know those students aren’t cheating? People cheat in regular classes.

“So far, we haven’t found a college willing to be innovative,” she continued. “I get that it’s new technology, but they need to be forward thinking. If a small, little rural school like Mohawk can do this, so can a college.”

Until a school is found, Cris plans to take some online college classes. And, once a final higher education decision is made, the family will look into getting him his own VGo.

Ultimately, Cris hopes to study in the computer technology field – and put a VGo into the lives of every student needing one.

“I’ve got a few ideas about making (VGos) work better,” he said, adding, “Maybe I’ll change the Go Fund Me to robots for the entire United States.”

Although Cris, a straight-A student and National Honor Society member who won a 2017 senior class community service award, admitted, “That might take an awfully long time.”

Even so, Cris’ family and educators encourage that dream.

“I tell him this is how change gets made. This little school was able to do something that no other school in the state had done,” Terry said.

“I’m a big fan of technology,” she continued. “I knew this would help him be successful academically, but I don’t think I realized the impact it would have in other areas. It truly opened up his life.”