When 6-year-old Aaron Weinstein powers up his laptop and presses the VGo app button, a robot inside Ms. Michele Picarelli’s first grade classroom springs to action.
Aaron has been unable to attend school following a leukemia diagnosis last December, but the specialized robot – which he logically nicknamed Aaron2 – has eased the social isolation that accompanied his medical reality, giving him a chance to interact with his buddies in real time in the classroom without putting himself at risk.
“Everyone loves it,” mom Rebecca Weinstein tells PEOPLE of his classroom avatar. “The class is so tight. When he comes in [via the VGo], you can hear them all go, ‘Hi Aaron!’ ”
The high-tech reconnection to his familiar classroom at Allen W. Roberts Elementary School in New Providence, New Jersey, has been a source of much-needed joy after Aaron’s unexpected diagnosis six months ago.
“He complained of pain on a Friday night, and by Sunday he couldn’t walk,” says Rebecca, who explained a blood test confirmed he had T cell lymphoblastic leukemia. “He was a very healthy, active boy, so we were shocked.”
Aaron was admitted to Goryeb Children’s Hospital at Morristown Medical Center for 23 days. Rebecca says one of the most challenging aspects of the ordeal was the separation from his friends. So when the hospital buzzed with the news that VGos were available for certain patients, Aaron was eager to volunteer.
“If you ask a first grader if he’s interested to have a robot, of course he’ll jump at the chance,” she said. “He was literally jumping up and down when he was told he was getting one.”
Dr. Steven Halpern, director of pediatric hemotology oncology at Goryeb, tells PEOPLE the hospital acquired a handful of VGos thanks in part to a grant from the Valerie Fund. Each VGo costs about $8,000, but the benefits are immeasurable.
“Our philosophy when treating children is to make sure they stay children,” he explains. “These kids go through very rigorous treatment and their lives are disrupted. One of the things most impacted is the fact that they can’t go to school and they feel socially isolated.”
“When the students start using the VGo, it’s like their whole outlook changes,” he continues. “I think any child who has a positive outlook, it can only be a benefit – a positive outlook can make a big difference.”
First paired with the VGo in April, Aaron generally logs into the classroom for a couple hours a day, working on reading and math, as well as receiving extra help from a tutor. Since the VGo is operated via a laptop, he can conveniently log in from home or the hospital.
“I can just go in our dining room and go on the computer, go to the VGo app and we’re there!” Aaron explains enthusiastically.
Technologically adept, Aaron learned to use the app quickly and feels comfortable zooming the camera in and out and tiling it up and down.
His favorite feature? Raising his hand.
“I press a little light to raise my hand – but only when I know the answer,” he explains.
His friends are fans of the VGo too, and his mom says Aaron is easily the most popular boy in class when it’s time for students to find a reading buddy.
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As the school year comes to a close, he has had a chance to visit his classroom in person, and his mom said the VGo helped him feel more connected when he went for an in-person visit.
“It’s a great way to break the ice,” Rebecca Weinstein says. “What 6-year-old doesn’t love his friends? The VGo has helped him stay connected.”
Aaron, meanwhile, is in no hurry for the school year to end.
“I might be a little sad,” he says when asked how he’ll feel about giving the VGo a rest for the summer. “Because I really like using it.”