Robert Shilling didn’t know Gabriel Dispenziere would be in his fourth-grade class until the eve of the first day of school in September 2014.
In fact, Aquebogue Elementary School principal Phil Kent said he learned he had to place Gabriel, who has eosinophilic esophagitis, a condition in which allergic reactions to food cause inflammation of the esophagus, only about a week before that school year started.
Mr. Kent said he had little doubt which of the four teachers at his grade level should “have the honor” of educating Gabriel, who cannot physically attend class due to his condition. When it comes to incorporating technology in the classroom, Mr. Shilling has always shown a remarkable aptitude, the principal said.
When Mr. Shilling used technology to allow Gabriel to attend class virtually — first through the use of FaceTime and later with the assistance of a VGo robot — Mr. Kent’s decision was affirmed. The teacher he had chosen had changed a boy’s life.
“He’s really someone who helps you and wants to make you happy,” Gabriel said of Mr. Shilling. “That’s pretty rare and amazing. I’m just lucky that I had him.”
For his dedication to his students and his ability to rise to the challenges necessary to meet Gabriel’s very specific needs, Mr. Shilling is the Riverhead News-Review’s 2015 Educator of the Year.
While EoE is a condition that affects one in about 2,000 people in the United States, according to the American Partnership for Eosinophilic Disorders, only about 1 percent of those affected have as severe a case as Gabriel, who turned 9 in June. He is allergic to all food proteins and instead gets his nutrients from a formula of amino acids he receives through a feeding tube in his stomach. He cannot be around food, and candy is just about all he can consume.
Since birth, Gabriel’s condition has dramatically reduced just how much exposure he’s had with the outside world.
Up until last school year, Gabriel’s education was left mostly to his mother, Raquel. When the family moved from Sacramento, Calif., to Aquebogue prior to the 2014-15 school year, Ms. Dispenziere viewed it as a fresh start with the education system. A Manorville native, the 29-year-old previously attended Riverhead schools herself before moving to California.
From the day she enrolled Gabriel in kindergarten, Ms. Dispenziere fought to have him connect with the classroom through technology. Mr. Shilling made it clear from day one there would be no battle in Riverhead.
“It was just as important to him as it was to me that Gabriel be a part of his classroom,” Ms. Dispenziere said.
As building principal, Mr. Kent assured Gabriel and his mother that he could connect with the classroom using an iPad and FaceTime for part of each day.
“I said ‘Maybe we can have him FaceTime 20 minutes a day,’ ” Mr. Kent recalled in an interview last month. “Bob said, ‘No problem.’ Within two weeks it was 40 minutes. Soon after, it was 60 minutes. It kept adding up and eventually [Gabriel] was spending almost five hours a day ‘in the classroom’ with FaceTime.”
But Mr. Shilling wasn’t satisfied with the commonplace technology of an iPhone, so he began researching a more advanced way to bring Gabriel into the mix. What he found was the VGo, a remote-controlled machine that enables an individual to establish a virtual physical presence in any location.
“Some users describe VGo as their personal ‘avatar,’ the VGo website claims. “Others describe how VGo ‘embodies’ the remote person.”
Recognizing that the machine might cost the district upward of $5,000, Mr. Shilling called Peggie Staib, a former Riverhead teacher and the assistant superintendent of educational services at Eastern Suffolk BOCES, to see if BOCES could help out. As it happened, Western Suffolk BOCES had one available for loan to Riverhead schools.
Last March, Ms. Dispenziere approached Gabriel to tell him he would no longer be able to FaceTime with his class. She captured the moment on video at the suggestion of Mr. Shilling.
“Why?” Gabriel responded, on the verge of tears.
“Unlock your iPad,” she said, revealing the VGo logo for her son to see.
“What? Mom!” he exclaimed before an uncontrollable giggle took over for the next 16 seconds. “Thank you!”
“Don’t thank me,” Ms. Dispenziere responded. “Thank Mr. Shilling and everybody at the school.”
For the final three months of last school year and ever since, Gabriel has attended class every day through the four-foot tall VGo, which he controls from a bright orange, 5-by-5 room in the back of his mother’s Howell Avenue salon.
The robot navigates around the classroom displaying a video image of Gabriel and sending back to the salon streaming video of the classroom, which Mr. Shilling modified to accommodate Gabriel and his machine.
Gabriel doesn’t see the VGo as an extension of himself — “not a different body,” he said — but rather another set of eyes he can use to connect with a world that always felt so distant.
The greatest benefit of being part of Mr. Shilling’s class through the robot has been the social experience it has provided.
“Mr. Shilling is why I have friends,” Gabriel said moments after wrapping up school the Tuesday before holiday break. “Every once in a while [before the VGo], I’d just play in my room and wish I had other friends besides my two cousins.”
Today, it takes Gabriel both hands to count all the new friends he has. When his mother visited the school in June, a line formed to sign his yearbook.
“It was just moving for me,” Ms. Dispenziere said. “It was very cool.”
Mr. Kent said introducing the VGo last school year — it has since moved to Pulaski Street School, along with Gabriel — was a learning experience for the entire Aquebogue building.
“All the students in Gabriel’s classroom really benefited,” he said. “Knowing that there are students out there who aren’t able to attend school, which is something you take for granted — they really came together and worked together. It’s amazing how many friendships Gabriel created in the classroom without [physically] spending one day in it.
“During off times, [Mr. Shilling] set up sessions with other classrooms to introduce the VGo to them. When you’re a 4- or 5-year-old and you see a robot walking down the hallway, you want to grab a hold of it. He really educated our whole school community on the importance of what this machine robot was doing for this student, but also the importance of being responsible and respectful with this machine.”
Of course, there were also countless hours of training on the VGo for Mr. Shilling and others, most of which BOCES provided. And Mr. Shilling, who is retiring in June after more than 20 years with the district, also took on the added task of dropping off materials to Gabriel at the salon, going out of his way many afternoons after the final bell rang.
“It all came together because Bob Shilling just kept on pushing it,” Mr. Kent said. “He kept pushing his enthusiasm, pushing his drive.”
That dedication isn’t lost on Gabriel’s mother.
“I think Mr. Shilling deserves all of the credit,” she said. “He made every bit of it happen. He found out about VGo. He found out BOCES had one and he lined it all up.”
At Aquebogue’s graduation ceremony last June, Ms. Dispenziere had a seat in the front row. One by one, Mr. Shilling called the names of each student as they accepted their diplomas.
When he called out the name Gabriel Dispenziere, the VGo made its way toward the teacher, who taped the diploma to the machine.
“I never thought I would be able to see my kid walk across a stage to accept his diploma,” Ms. Dispenziere said.
2014: Greg Wallace
2013: Keri Stromski
2012: Jeff Doroski
2011: Jim Schaefer
2010: Stacy Tuohy
2009: Laura Grable
2008: Vincent Nasta
2007: Marion Dorman
2006: Theresa Drozd
2005: Frank Rotenberg
2004: Kevin McAllister
2003: Leif Shay
2002: Bob Jester
2001: Jean Lapinski
2000: Pat Rose
1999: Pat Snyder
1998: Carol Masin
1997: L. Custer, J. Greenberger
1996: Terri Peters
1995: Jim Roth
1994: Tim Hubbard
1993: Dot Moran
1992: Dorothy Lipsky
1991: Willie Patterson
1990: Audrey Stupke
1989: Ray McKieghan
1988: Stanley Krouse