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Teen raising funds for robots so patients can see outside hospital walls

| Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017, 1:21 p.m.
Cris Colaluca, 17, of New Castle used his wish from the Make-A-Wish foundation as an opportunity to donate a VGo robot to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015. Colaluca attends school from the comfort of his bedroom using a VGo robot.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Cris Colaluca, 17, of New Castle used his wish from the Make-A-Wish foundation as an opportunity to donate a VGo robot to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015. Colaluca attends school from the comfort of his bedroom using a VGo robot.
Cris Colaluca, 17, of New Castle demonstrates how to use the VGo robot at a press conference announcing his Make-A-Wish VGo robot donation at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Cris Colaluca, 17, of New Castle demonstrates how to use the VGo robot at a press conference announcing his Make-A-Wish VGo robot donation at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015.
Working from his home computer in New Castle, Cris Colaluca, 14, maneuvers a 4-foot-tall robot to go from his seventh-grade science class to math Thursday, January 26, 2012. Cris, who has spina bifida, navigates the 20-pound robot from his bedroom and participates via videoconferencing in each class. (Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review)
Working from his home computer in New Castle, Cris Colaluca, 14, maneuvers a 4-foot-tall robot to go from his seventh-grade science class to math Thursday, January 26, 2012. Cris, who has spina bifida, navigates the 20-pound robot from his bedroom and participates via videoconferencing in each class. (Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review)

Cris Colaluca knows how a simple change of scenery can make a world of difference.

The New Castle senior is attempting to raise enough money to purchase three robots to give Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh patients the ability to telecommunicate with friends and family from their hospital beds.

“There is more to getting well than just the medical care,” said Colaluca, 19, who lives with spina bifida and other related health complications. Since his seventh-grade year at Mohawk Junior High School in Lawrence County, he has attended public school from the safety of his bedroom via a VGo telepresence robot.

“It helped me interact with other kids like I never had earlier in my life,” he says. “It gives me a chance to be with the outside world.”

The GoFundMe effort is Colaluca's senior project and is sponsored by Vecna Cares, the nonprofit arm of Cambridge, Mass.-based Vecna Technologies, which owns VGo. His goal is to raise $35,000 by April to cover the cost of the robots, as well as maintenance and service costs.

Colaluca developed a rare condition at age 6 that caused his body to seize, mostly at night. The seizures caused respiratory problems, as well as achalasia, a disorder affecting the ability of the esophagus to move food toward the stomach.

He began to study with teachers at home and lost all connection with his peers.

“For seven years, I was isolated, had no contact with other children,” he writes on his project's GoFundMe page. “My education suffered, and my family worried for my future.”

VGo proved to be the solution to his problem. The 4-foot-tall, 20-pound robot comes with a camera, microphone and video display. Colaluca is able to control it from his computer at home, navigating hallways and classrooms and, most importantly, seeing his friends via Wi-Fi coverage.

In May, he will use the robot to attend his high school graduation.

Colaluca and his mom, Terry, credit VGo for his improved grades. The student who was struggling years ago was inducted into the National Honor Society last year.

“I'm very proud of him,” says Terry Colaluca. “He has been through a lot, so he understands what it means to be able to connect to people he wouldn't otherwise see or learn things he wouldn't otherwise learn.”

His mother isn't the only one who's taken notice of Colaluca's dedication to helping others. Eva Rosenberg, the noted blogger and columnist known as TaxMama, and country singer Jimmy Wayne have promoted his efforts on social media.

The new robots won't be Children's Hospital's first. In 2015, Colaluca used his Make-A-Wish to donate the first VGo to the hospital. Heather Ambrose, director of nursing, says patients will continue to use the robots when they are otherwise unable to attend special events.

“We can't thank Cris enough for the first VGo robot, and we are just thrilled he is fundraising now to donate additional robots to the hospital,” she says. “We couldn't be more happy about his generosity and spirit.”

Details: gofundme.com/vgo-robot-for-childrens-hospital

Rachel Weaver is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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