Verizon funds robots for senior project

Next month, Cris Colaluca graduates from high school via robot.

But, before he does, the Mohawk Area High School senior wants to help others in similar circumstances.

Diagnosed with rare seizure disorder as well as spina bifida, the 19-year-old Colaluca has attended school via a VGo robotic telepresence device since seventh grade.

For his senior project, Colaluca created a Go Fund Me account to provide robots for hospitalized youth at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

“I wanted other kids to have the same experience that I did,” Colaluca explained. “I hope it makes them feel good that they can get out of their rooms, even if it isn’t physically.”

Among those the Bessemer resident contacted on social media about the project was recording artist, author and children’s activist Jimmy Wayne who served as keynote speaker for Verizon’s national conference.

Wayne and Janet Schijns, vice president of solution and sales channels for Verizon Business Markets, were instrumental in securing a donation from the company, which funded the donation of two VGos earlier this month.

“The campaign was stalled before (Wayne and Verizon) came along. I’m really honored that someone like Jimmy Wayne, and a big company like Verizon, took time for me,” Colaluca said.

The new robots bring to three the number at Children’s, and Colaluca was responsible for the first VGo, too.

In October 2015, he donated the original Children’s VGo as his wish from Make-A-Wish of Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The units allow children who are hospitalized or who have special needs to remain connected to their social environments. They also help kids who can’t leave their rooms connect to events happening at the hospital.

Colaluca knows the benefits of staying connected first-hand.

“For seven years, I was isolated, had no contact with other children, and barely had reading and math instruction. My education suffered, and my family worried for my future,” Colaluca wrote on his Go Fund Me page.

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

“There is more to getting well than just the medical care. Being stuck in a hospital room, or at home, is hard. Connecting through a VGo raises spirits,” wrote Colaluca, now a straight-A student and member of the National Honor Society.

With only about a month left before graduation, Colaluca still hopes to secure enough donations through his Go Fund Me page to purchase one more robot for Children’s.

All donations to Colaluca’s account, https://www.gofundme.com/vgo-robot-for-childrens-hospital, are tax deductible. The project is sponsored and overseen by Vecna Cares, a 501(c)3 organization providing technology and training to support and strengthen health systems in underserved areas.