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Cris Colaluca's Make-A-Wish is to pass on the same kind of benefits he got

| Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, 8:55 p.m.

Meeting a celebrity. Attending a sporting event. Disney World.

These wishes have been filled many times through Make-A-Wish. But one high school junior from New Castle wanted his wish to extend beyond a one-time experience. Cris Colaluca, who lives with spina bifida and other related health complications, is using his Make-A-Wish to give others the same gift a 4-foot-tall, 20-pound robot has given him: a sense of normalcy.

Since seventh grade, Cris has attended class via a VGo telepresence robot. On Oct. 15, he announced that Make-A-Wish Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia is donating one to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC so patients confined to their beds or rooms can use it to interact with others.

“If I didn't have VGo, I wouldn't be where I am today,” says Cris, 17.

Cris began attending school via VGo in his seventh-grade year at Mohawk Junior High School, Lawrence County, after six years of learning from home. He had attended school until first grade, when he developed a rare condition that caused his body to seize almost 90 percent of the night. The seizures caused respiratory problems as well as achalasia, a disorder affecting the ability of the esophagus to move food toward the stomach.

Teachers taught Cris at home, and he tried a stationary webcam, but it wasn't the same. The friendly boy with the sweet smile missed being social. In 2011, Mohawk technology coordinator Theresa McConnell saw a news report on the VGo, created by a Cambridge, Mass., company of the same name. With its camera, microphone and video display, the VGo would serve as an ideal solution for Cris.

According to its website, VGos are used by health-care professionals to consult with patients remotely, in business to reduce traveling costs, as well as by home- or hospital-bound students who want to attend school. Cris controls the VGo anywhere in the school via Wi-Fi coverage. Using a computer mouse to navigate the robot, Cris can look all around and zoom in and out. VGo is battery-powered and can run up to a full day between charges. It's stored at the school and charges on a docking station overnight.

While Cris was one of the first to use a VGo for school, 350 students, ranging from ages 5 to 21, use the robot in classrooms across the country, says Diana Partyka, VGo education-development manager.

Judith Stone, president and CEO of Make-A-Wish Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia, says Cris' use of his wish to benefit others is “quite uncommon.”

“Most children are going some place — they're going on a trip, to Disney. Cris isn't going. He's giving,” she says.

Yet, Cris' decision came as no surprise to mom Terry.

“That's typical Cris,” she says. “Anyone who knows him knows that fits his personality.”

The improvement in her son's quality of life since receiving the VGo has been remarkable, she says.

“Every year, he's doing better,” she says. “He got all A's last year. It just goes to show that it takes an educator who's willing to look beyond the present to the future and be committed to bringing out the best in the student.”

Now, Cris is looking ahead to college. He hopes to study computer programming at a school in South Carolina, where the family plans to move once he graduates.

But the mark he'll leave on the lives of numerous children will remain here in Pittsburgh.

“This is a pretty remarkable gift,” says Dr. Steven Docimo, chief medical officer of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC and one of Cris' doctors. “This is a huge leap forward for Children's Hospital.”

Rachel Weaver is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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