CHAPPELL HILL, Texas -- C.J. Herron lives at his grandparents’ picturesque ranch home in Chappell Hill near Brenham.
It’s only 12 miles from his 3rd grade class at Brenham Elementary School, but the 9-year-old boy can’t make that trip.
“I would if I could,” Herron said.
He can’t go to school because his life got off to an early start. He was born premature at 30 weeks, weighing only two pounds and two ounces. He spent several of his first months in the hospital, and his health problems have lingered, leaving him with a compromised immune system.
A cold, a scrape, an elementary school sneeze could prove disastrous. So he stays home and gets instruction in person from a homebound teacher provided by Brenham ISD.
Herron misses the interaction with his friends from school the most.
“Because I know pretty much every one of them,” Herron said.
But this week, Herron is going to his 3rd grade class for the first time with a little help from a robot.
"C.J. is about to arrive,” announced a pre-recorded message that came from the speakers on a four-foot high robot created by VGo Communications and supplied by Education Service Center Region 6.
Herron, while seated at a laptop computer at home, appeared on the video screen on the robot and was greeted by cheers from his 3rd grade class.
From home he can control the robot’s movements, drive it from class to class, and take part in classroom discussions via a web-based camera and microphone.
“My favorite thing was when they were all just cheering for me,” Herron said.
He said it made him feel “alive.”
And that chance to feel alive is enough to make a mom cry.
"It's more than just him going to school,” said his mom Lauren Cook. “It's him growing up, getting friends, and being a little nine-year-old boy."
The Vgo program brought the same emotions from Herron’s grandfather Travis Cook. “Paw Paw” has been by his grandson’s side since those first moments in the NICU. They are fishing buddies, fellow NASCAR fans, and now fans of a little robot.
"C.J. has a special place in my heart because of all he's been through,” Travis said. “And I'm just so grateful to everyone for making this happen. We’re forever grateful.”
And Herron is grateful because he can also give his robot a nickname. They even made a special shirt for the robot to wear. It says “Blue Deuce” on the front and has the name of NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski and the number two on the back.
"Well it makes sense because I was two pounds two ounces and my favorite race car driver drives the number two,” Herron said.
For now the somewhat slower Blue Deuce will run the hallways at Brenham Elementary. Via the robot C.J. will get to sit side by side with his classmates in the front row.
“It’s pretty fun,” he told us of the robot that announces “C.J. has left the building” every time he logs off from home.
It’s a robot that serves as a lifeline for a little kid, keeping him in school, until he’s healthy enough to get back into the race in person.