John Coltabaugh’s students at Bald Eagle Area High School know his son through pictures and stories.
When Coltabaugh uses the smartboard in his classroom, photos of Eddie flash onto the screen. They serve as his screensaver — often generating a collective “Awww!” from students — and lead to questions at times when they see photos of Eddie on a heart monitor when he was infant. They know life hasn’t been easy for Eddie, who suffers from DiGeorge syndrome, a disorder that can cause developmental delays, heart defects and a cleft palate.
Mariah Veneziano, one of Coltabaugh’s students, was inspired to organize a fundraiser for Eddie for the BEA girls’ basketball team’s home game against Tyrone on Tuesday night. Veneziano talked with fellow seniors Madison Watkins, Alexis Bucha and Morgan Chambers about the idea, and the Lady Eagles held a T-shirt sale and put together baskets to raffle off during Tuesday night’s game. There will also be a free-throw shooting contest, half-court shooting contest and a bake sale to raise funds for Eddie.
“He’s going to love this,” Coltabaugh said of his 4 year-old son. “It’s going to be a great night for him to get out and see these people supporting him — people that he doesn’t know — just to come and to meet people. He loves to get to know and to see people. It’s going to be a great experience for him.”
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Eddie weighed 1 pound, 12 ounces, when he was born three months premature on April 13, 2013, at the Janet Weis Children’s Hospital in Danville. A few weeks after his birth, John and his wife found out that Eddie had DiGeorge syndrome.
Eddie can say a few words, but he’s “not really verbal.” He knows some sign language and finds other ways to communicate. And he’s in speech therapy. He can count to 20 and often says “Come on.” He can say “mama,” but he can’t say “dada” because he can’t pronounce the letter “d.”
Eddie needed open-heart surgery this past July and has a feeding button in his stomach. He can’t eat anything substantial. He has difficulty swallowing, so even though he loves pepperoni, he can only chew it for the flavor before putting it in a spit bowl.
“He actually doesn’t eat,” Coltabaugh said. “He gets, I would say, 95-99 percent of his food in a day through a feeding pump.”
The pictures on Coltabaugh’s screensaver show the challenges that Eddie has faced. Students usually take note of one photo of Eddie on a ventilation system and feeding tube running through his nose to his stomach. They can see a photo of him still on the heart monitor during his first Christmas. And in another photo, he’s wearing a black backpack for his feeding pump.
Veneziano first saw pictures of Eddie as an infant in eighth grade when she had a health class in Coltabaugh’s classroom. That’s when she learned about DiGeorge syndrome.
“It really opened my eyes up to what happens outside of our little school district,” Veneziano said. “I didn’t know anything about DiGeorge syndrome until I learned about Eddie, and it just really like opened my eyes to see what the world has out there. Some people go through this stuff without anyone else ever knowing.”
In 10th grade, Veneziano talked with Coltabaugh — who teaches history at BEA — about Eddie when she would stay after class to discuss grades. The screensaver would pop up, and she’d ask questions about his family. She got the idea to support Eddie after BEA girls’ soccer player Kiersten Walker put together a “Kickin’ Out Autism” fundraiser in the fall. She planned the girls’ basketball team’s efforts for its game against Tyrone, the community where Coltabaugh lives and where Eddie goes to school.
It will help with medical expenses for Eddie, who goes to Pittsburgh once a week all year for medical appointments. Chambers recalled hearing about those regular trips in her class with Coltabaugh last year.
“He would always tell us like, ‘Oh I have to go to Pittsburgh for Eddie this weekend. I have to go to this hospital for Eddie,’” Chambers said. “It is kind of heartbreaking hearing everything he has to go through.”
But she also saw a happy little boy in Coltabaugh’s more recent pictures.
There’s a photo of him picking pumpkins. He shows his “silly side” with his hood on his head in another picture. He’s playing in the snow, and he’s at Chuck E. Cheese’s in other photos. The smiling kid in the pictures likes to shoot on his Little Tikes basketball hoop, swing his plastic baseball bat, play football and jump on his small trampoline. He loves to laugh and going in the ocean.
“We pretty much say he has two speeds: He’s going or he’s asleep,” Coltabaugh said. “He has a very positive outlook because that’s his life. He’s happy.”
With Tuesday’s game dedicated to raising funds for Eddie, the Lady Eagles think it’s going be bigger than their Senior Night. They’ve been getting emails and hearing from teachers, and they’re excited to see the BEA community come together for Eddie.
“It’s just heartwarming and it’s fun to realize that we’re making a difference in Eddie’s life,” Bucha said.
Their teacher is looking forward to Tuesday night, too — and he appreciates their efforts to help his son.
“My wife and I think it’s great. We are very blessed by the people who support him and indirectly support us,” Coltabaugh said. “It means the world to us.”
Fundraiser for Eddie Coltabaugh
What: Tyrone at Bald Eagle Area girls’ basketball game
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Bald Eagle Area High School Gymnasium
Details: Raffles, bake sale and free-throw contest to raise funds for 4-year-old Eddie, who has DiGeorge syndrome