Friday, June 8th, 2007
By Shelley Grieshop
New Mercer County troop serves special Scouts
  COLDWATER - A group of Mercer County families are searching for participants and leaders for the area's first-ever Scouts with Disabilities troop.
About a half dozen boys already have signed up and organizers are welcoming anyone interested. All boys with cognitive and physical disabilities, ages 11-22 are welcome.
So far, the real roadblock for the group appears to be a lack of male leadership.
"We think it's important to have a man, someone who could be a role model for these boys, to show them Scout activities," says Sue Westgerdes, whose son Ethan is one of the new members.
Westgerdes believes the boys with disabilities would benefit in many ways from a leader who is not their parent but someone they could feel "normal" around.
"(The goal is to) create an environment that is safe...with caring volunteers so our boys can experience self-confidence, have something to look forward to, have a social outlet to make friends, learn to be an active part of their community and gain independence...not something they are going to do with mom or dad," she says.
A college student studying to become a teacher or a grandfather with extra time on his hand might make good candidates to lead the group, Westgerdes adds.
Dan Varn of Celina, the district executive for the Boy Scouts of America Black Swamp Council, is giving the group a supportive start by providing needed resources and answering questions.
"I'm supporting them the same way we do any other Scouting groups," Varn says. "Historically, the disabled have been underserved."
Varn says the new group will have year-round access to Boy Scout camps in Findlay and Defiance. They'll also have the opportunity to earn the Scouts' highest honor - Eagle Scout - with projects altered to fit each boy's special needs.
"The goal is for the youth to have a fulfilling experience, one that is flexible for everybody," Varn says.
Since the Boy Scouts were founded in 1910, they've had members with physical, mental and emotional disabilities. The first Chief Scout Executive, James E. West, was disabled.
While attempting to keep boys with disabilities in the mainstream of Scouting, the organization also has endeavored to meet their special needs. The Boy Scout Handbook is printed in Braille; merit badge pamphlets are recorded on cassette tapes for the blind; and closed-caption training videos are produced for the deaf.
Mothers of the local boys who've already signed up for the new Scout troop, say their children need to learn life skills outside the classroom, just like other boys. Many need to enhance their social skills because their lack of confidence leads them to quickly shy away from others they don't feel a connection with.
The boys are interested in outdoor activities such as swimming, fishing, camping, archery, hiking, golfing and bowling, just like other children their age, Westgerdes says.
Most youths with disabilities don't get the opportunity to participate in athletics at school so they miss out on an environment that other boys experience, which helps develop those skills and friendships, the mothers say.
Organizers also hope to solicit a few local volunteers to help with activities from time to time. Community volunteers ranging from elementary students to grandparents might be able to assist the troop in monthly or bi-monthly activities. The goal is to have a rotating schedule to make it easier on all volunteers.
The group hopes to get the troop started soon so the boys can start some of the Scout activities yet this summer.
"These boys just want to enjoy the same things that other kids do," Westgerdes says.
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