Boy Scouts of all ages exceed `expectations'

Pledge: A troop in Severna Park was formed 24 years ago to help people succeed despite their disabilities.

February 12, 2002|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

The members of Boy Scout Troop 216 don't tell stories around the campfire or go on 50-mile weekend hikes. It may take two years of work to earn a citizenship merit badge, and it's unlikely that anyone in this troop will make Eagle Scout before the age of 40.

But few Scouts wear their uniforms more proudly.

Created 24 years ago to offer Scouting to the disabled, Troop 216 gathers twice a month in the Knights of Columbus hall on Ritchie Highway. There, volunteers pass on Scouting's practical skills and timeless values to the 19 Boy Scouts who range in age from 16 to 65.

Many have Down syndrome. One boy has a neurological disorder that requires him to wear a helmet during any physical activity. Another member is a former college history professor who lost his short-term memory in a car accident more than 20 years ago.

When not in this meeting hall in Severna Park, they're frequently perceived and treated as outsiders. But here, wearing their Boy Scout uniforms -- some decorated with more than 20 merit badges -- they belong.

"We do all the Boy Scout things, we just do it slower," said James Dunne, 67, the troop's Scoutmaster for the past seven years. "You give them a little time, a little space and they'll get there. They're all loving people, and every one of them is trying hard the best they can in life. They're happy and proud to wear the uniform."

What they learn makes a difference in their lives.

Robert Szuba's Scouting skills made it possible for the 34-year-old senior troop patrol leader to take part in a moving ceremony at his father's funeral last year.

At one of the troop's summer camping excursions, 38-year-old Kevin Sweany made a leather key chain imprinted with the Scout insignia for his father.

Matthew McClain, 35, loves Scouting so much that sometimes he wears his full dress uniform to church and to his job at a Rite Aid in Edgewater.

"It has become a family for him, an extension of his family," said Ruth McClain, his mother. "It's a safe environment for him to grow in his relationships with his peers, to have goals and to have success stories."

Troop 216 is one of a few in the Baltimore area for members with special needs. Other troops for disabled Scouts exist, but typically they are affiliated with special education schools.

The Holy Trinity Knights of Columbus has sponsored the troop since 1978, when Eagle Scout Dan Pazdersky and Charlie Smith, Jim George and John Pazdersky -- three members of the Catholic service organization -- started it.

Most of the troop's members can't read, write or count. They come from different parts of Anne Arundel County and live in group homes or with family members.

Despite their limitations, they camp several times a year at Broad Creek in Harford County, attend the Boy Scout National Jamboree and work to earn merit badges. One member is an Eagle Scout -- the highest rank in Scouting -- and three are Life Scouts, the second-highest rank.

"Nothing is given; they earn it, which offers them a real sense of pride," said Gene Fox, director of special needs Scouting with the Baltimore Area Council of Boy Scouts.

At a recent meeting of Troop 216, Dunne stands before the uniformed Scouts, who are neatly outfitted in olive-green pants, tan shirts and blue kerchiefs knotted at the neck.

While Dunne takes attendance, some of the Scouts murmur to themselves and nod to no one in particular. One rubs his eyes vigorously; another stares across the room with his fingers in his mouth.

"OK, we're working on our citizenship series of badges," Dunne says. "This is an election year. Does anyone know what elections will take place in the state?"

"Who is the current governor?" "Who's the county executive? Anybody remember? It's a woman."

After prolonged silences to each question, the volunteers provide the answers.

"What happened to President Bush over the weekend?" Dunne continues.

"He got hurt," answers Sweany. "How?" Dunne asks.

"Somebody shot him," Sweany says loudly.

"Noooooo," Dunne and other volunteers groan. "He choked on a pretzel."

"Pretzel," Sweany shouts.

Dunne knows he'll be asking the same questions at future meetings until he gets some correct answers.

"We go over them, we go over them, and we go over them," he says.

Experience has taught Dunne that repetition is the key to getting a point across to his troop members. And he understood quickly that he had to adapt to their pace.

"The way I learned I couldn't rush them was I tried to rush them," he said. "One of them got up and went home. He wasn't going to be rushed."

Dunne also discovered early on that these Boy Scouts love to hug at any opportunity.

"We meet here to go camping, and they all have to hug each other," he said. "Then we go to the bus, and they have to hug before they get in the bus. They're huggers."

It takes a devoted cadre of volunteers who put in long hours to keep the troop going and, like the Scouts, most have been affiliated with the group for a number of years and with Scouting for decades.

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