Essex troop provides a home for special-needs Boy Scouts

Unit strives to be in tune with its members' abilities

  • Members of Boy Scouts Troop 117, a group for special needs boys, experience the outdoor during a camping trip at Camp Cone park. Nicholas Heuchan, of Dundalk, who is blind, crawls out of an emergency shelter he built with help from his father, John. He planned to spend the night in the shelter during camp.
Members of Boy Scouts Troop 117, a group for special needs boys,… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
April 07, 2011|By Raven L. Hill, The Baltimore Sun

As members of Boy Scout Troop 117 gathered to discuss their trip to see the Baltimore County Council in action, a troop leader leaned in, trying to coax details from the easily distracted boys.

Finally, they discussed their favorite part of the council meeting.

"'The meeting is now adjourned,'" one joked to a chorus of laughter from the group.

The scene could play out in a Scout troop anywhere. But the members of Troop 117 aren't your typical Scouts.

The troop is one of 13 in the Baltimore area geared to boys and young men with special physical, mental and emotional challenges. But despite the struggles with autism, blindness or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, parents and leaders at Troop 117 at Christian Community Church in Essex focus on what these Scouts can do.

"We let them do as much as they can," Scoutmaster Rich Gambrill said. "We work with anyone who comes in the troop."

The Boy Scouts of America encourages including boys with disabilities at all levels of Scouting — Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout troops, Venture Crews, Varsity Scout teams and Sea Scout ships. Approximately 100,000 members in 4,000 units have special needs. Many of the organization's 320 local councils, including the Baltimore Area Council, have established advisory committees for Scouts with disabilities.

The Baltimore area special-needs units serve 290 boys. There are units for members with identical disabilities, such as all-blind or all-deaf Scouts, but they are encouraged to participate in local, regional and national activities with Scouts who are not disabled.

Members can remain Scouts for as long as they want, even well into adulthood. In Troop 117, the youngest boy is 6 years old and a member of their Cub Scout pack; the oldest, at 25, is Gambrill's son. The troop also includes a Venture Crew, a group of nondisabled teenage boys and girls that help the Scouts. Parents are required to attend all meetings.

Traditional activities, like earning badges, camping and community service, may require some modifications. If a badge requires speaking to the Scoutmaster, a boy who cannot talk would be allowed to show him or her instead. Boys with physical disabilities might sleep on cots during a camping trip — instead of in a sleeping bag — or use bigger tents.

"We can't always accommodate everything, but we do our best," Gambrill said.

He started the troop about three years ago. Though his son had a positive experience in a regular troop, Gambrill thought that some boys would feel more comfortable among others with special needs. His wife, Karen, is in charge of the Cub Scouts.

John Heuchan, an assistant Scoutmaster, said he thought the troop would be a good match for his 14-year-old son, Nicholas, who is blind and has other physical and mental disabilities. His son was a Cub Scout in a traditional pack, Heuchan said, but "I wanted to get into a unit that would be more in tune with his needs.

"Knowing that he was not going to get any better," Heuchan said, "I need to know there's going to be a unit that will be more flexible with what's going on."

Barbara Kowalczyk, who lives in Middle River, has two sons in the troop: Christopher, 15, who has autism, and Steven, 16, who is not disabled. Kowalczyk had planned to enroll only Christopher in the Scouts — "I wanted something new and adventurous for him," she said — but Steven ended up joining the Venture Crew, which has been good for both boys, she said.

"He gets his break to do his thing with the Venture Crew, and they still help out with all the other kids in anything that they do. He's not only dealing with autistic children; he's learning to deal with other disabilities as well."

Parents of children with special needs are usually reluctant to join activities like the Scouts, afraid that people will mistreat their kids, Kowalczyk said. But she encourages them to give the troop a shot.

"If you don't expose them to the everyday life, they're not ever going to learn how to deal with everyday life," she said.

Activities like Scouting help to break down barriers, said Stephen Freeman, senior vice president of the League of People with Disabilities, a local nonprofit group.

"When others see people with disabilities and what they're capable of doing, they begin to see them much more as equals, especially starting at that age," Freeman said.

During the Scout meeting, the Venture Crew worked alongside the boys in setting up tents, practice for a coming camping trip in Harford County.

Cheryl Bishop watched as her son, Zack, helped to balance a rod while other boys adjusted the tent. Zack, who has autism, joined the troop right before Christmas. She drives from Parkville to Essex each week for Scout activities. "This isn't in our backyard, but it's worth it."

Bishop said she would not have put her son in a regular troop because of her concerns about bullying and behavior issues. "We were shying away from everything," she said.

But this troop was an easy sell to the 11-year-old.

"Being autistic, he likes to do hands-on things. He likes to get badges for positive reinforcement," Bishop said. "He really likes it. He can be himself here. And as a parent of a special-needs kid, you're not getting the looks and the attitude from parents. Very accepting."

"We would like to see [a boy with special needs] make it in a normal troop," Heuchan said. "But if they can't, then you've always got a home here."

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