To the casual onlooker, the scene at a recent Helena Boy Scouts of America Troop 1218 gathering resembles organized chaos.
Troop leaders set up instruction stations throughout the room to teach advanced knot tying, nail hammering, and rope throwing.
There is serious concentration, coupled with mild frustration, until the skill is learned. And, then, it’s fun and pure joy.
“Tom, look!,” says Boy Scout Tristan Hall, who holds up a successfully tied Sheepshank knot for instructor Tom Mazanec to observe.
It’s a scene that certainly plays out at other Boy Scout meetings.
But, there is a uniqueness to Troop 1218 as its enrollment includes mostly boys with disabilities.
Mazanec is quick to point out that Troop 1218 is for all boys and the fact that Hall, age 14, was born with Downs Syndrome is irrelevant. “In our troop, everyone is equal, it doesn’t make any difference,” Mazanec said. “Everyone wears the same uniform, and is expected to learn the same things. The troop leaders are here to work with all the Scouts until the task is learned, and to have some fun along the way.”
Mazanec, who has been involved with Troop 1218 for about 34 years, says seeing the Scouts succeed never gets old. “Once they start to understand how it works to tie certain knots, and the other things they are learning, then it’s just a moment of pride for all of them,” he said.
The main difference that separates this troop from others is the fact that this one allows boys with disabilities to continue past age 18, if needed, to earn the Eagle Scout rank. “This troop is for everyone, but for youth with special needs, this is the place to be,” Mazanec said. “We just have a group of boys who are having fun, and that’s all that matters. We don’t talk about disabilities.”
Mazanec says at least 30 boys with disabilities who have made it to Eagle Scout during his involvement with Troop 1218.
Maria Hall is Tristan’s mother, and she hopes that one day he becomes an Eagle Scout. But, even if he doesn’t, the skills he’s learning are invaluable. “He’s truly learning to gain his own identity, how to socialize with others, and gain more independence,” she said. “And, what I really like is the troop leaders are there to help guide him, but they do not do things for Tristan. He’s learning to do things on his own.”
Maria says the skills Tristan is learning in Boy Scouts show up in myriad ways such as on family camping trips when it’s time to build the campfire or at dinner time. “He’s always wanting to bake something, potatoes of any kind,” she says. “He’s very determined, and never one to give up and his friends in Scouts always encourage him to keep trying.”
Capital High School student Zach Lee serves in a youth leadership role with Troop 1218 as Senior Patrol Leader. Lee’s cousin, who has disabilities, encouraged him four years ago to become involved with Troop 1218 to serve as a mentor. Lee, along with Scoutmaster David Sheridan, Assistant Scoutmaster Keith Borrow and Scout Troop Committee members Tony Etherington and Mazanec form a solid leadership team.
It was Lee who recruited the Scouts to help build an 8-by-16 foot storage shed this year for his Eagle Scout project. This spring, the shed will be moved to the Helena YMCA to be used to store bicycles for people with disabilities and the elderly. Wheels Across Montana donated the bikes, and local businesses and the Helena Civitan Club, a club that supports children with disabilities, chipped in for the shed materials.
The young, energetic boys of Troop 1218, led by Lee, provided the labor.
Lee said the bikes will be available for people with disabilities and the elderly to use as a way to “explore the biking and walking trails in Helena.”
A side benefit to the project resulted in many of the boys becoming proficient at hammering, thanks to Lee’s tutelage. But, this didn’t come without its share of challenges. “I had to learn to be patient with them, and remember these are just 11 to 14-year-olds, so it’s just a matter of getting them to focus,” he said. “I have been impressed with how much fun they all have together. They are truly here to just have a good time.”
Troop 1218 will be part of a Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month celebration event to be held March 15 at 1 p.m. at the Capitol Rotunda in Helena. The program will also feature appearances by Cohesion Dance and the Westmont Cheerleaders. The event celebrates people of all disabilities and their many contributions to society and is being sponsored by the Montana Council on Developmental Disabilities, Family Outreach, Westmont, Montana Independent Living Project, Helena Industries, Spring Meadow Resources, Benchmark Human Services, and the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS).
DPHHS Director Sheila Hogan said the agency she oversees is proud to participate in the celebration. “This is an event our agency looks forward to every year,” Hogan said. “Individuals with disabilities have important voices in all Montana communities, and it’s events such as this that allow for those voices to be heard.”
“See Me for Me!” is the event theme, and is an opportunity to promote respect for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) and to educate others on the spectrum about the abilities people with I/DD possess.
Event organizer Deborah Swingley of the Montana Council on Developmental Disabilities said “See Me for Me!” means looking beyond any disability to see everyone for who they are as a person, and not just as a person with a disability. “Disabilities come in many forms, and during the event we will be celebrating all people and showcasing their many abilities,” Swingley said.