Building a Home, Building a Future
Building a Home, Building a Future
FIRST mentor plays key role in Extreme Makeover; LEGO® Education adds to boy’s dream robotics room
When the crew for ABC Television’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition left Seminole, Florida, in March following the construction of a new home for the James Dolan family, FIRST mentor Paul Wahnish found out what Chrissy Dolan appreciated most about the outpouring of generosity and support she and her family received.
It wasn’t the gorgeous, state-of-the-art home, its furnishings, or any of the other amenities that would serve as dream-come-true gifts for many people.
No, what Chrissy appreciated most was that her son Charlie’s future was bright with possibilities thanks to a college scholarship Wahnish had facilitated through his alma mater, the University of South Florida.
“When I rang the bell, Chrissy answered the door. We had never met in person,” said Wahnish, who visited the Dolan home to adjust a robot he and his helpers had installed in Charlie’s room. “She says to me, ‘Are you Coach Paul, the robot guy?’ I said I was. She then said, ‘If you are coach, you are the one who arranged for my son’s scholarship. That scholarship means more to us than anything else here.’”
That is precisely what Wahnish was hoping would happen when he worked feverishly to secure the gift shortly after being asked to design Charlie’s room in a robotics theme. It wasn’t enough to plan the room, gather the necessary materials – including LEGO® Education products donated by Pitsco – and build a creative design. As a teacher, he knew he had to do more.
A Boy's Dream
Wahnish wanted to empower Charlie so he could achieve his greatest dream, which is to help his father see again. James lost his sight when he was shot in the head at point-blank range during a shooting that left three people dead last November at the electronics store where he worked.
“In an interview conducted by ABC before the family was chosen,” Wahnish said, “the young man said he wanted to study to become an engineer so he could develop eyes so his dad could see again.”
That’s all Wahnish had to hear. Within four days – while also tirelessly working on the room, teaching, and preparing his FIRST students for their regional competition later that week – Wahnish arranged for USF to present a $60,000 scholarship for tuition and room and board and for Project Lead The Way to chip in another $6,000 to cover Charlie’s book expenses.
“I walked into the production trailer with an envelope in my hands containing the certificate valued at $66,000,” Wahnish said. “I handed it to the assistant producer and said, ‘It is not a house. It is more important than the house because when the house is gone, the education we will have provided this young man will still be standing.’”
In designing Charlie’s room in a robotics theme, Wahnish and his crew (19 students, several parents, his wife, one of his sons, and several other engineering professionals) took full advantage of the LEGO MINDSTORMS® for Schools “No Limits” theme. “That theme from the last national competition made more sense on this project than one could ever have dreamed,” Wahnish said.
Originally, the room design called for placing the LEGO field into a bottom bunk, building and lighting the field where the mattress normally would go. However, last-minute changes led to the construction of a rolling field that slid under the bed.
The LEGO setup complemented the many other robotic elements in Charlie’s room.
As for working closely with one of television’s most energized and hardworking casts, Wahnish said the Extreme Makeover crew was “fantastic,” particularly Paul DiMeo and Preston Sharp. “They had no problem relating with me and, more importantly, with the students,” Wahnish said.
Always the educator, he noted that his student helpers learned invaluable life lessons that will serve them longer than the skills they used to design and build the robotic mechanisms.
“A person could live an entire lifetime and never have the opportunity to participate in such a project,” Wahnish said. “I told the kids, ‘Everything we did may never make the final show. It may end up on the cutting room floor. But no one will ever be able to take away the feeling they must have in their heart for what they accomplished.’” Editor Tom Farmer, firstname.lastname@example.org