Even at the institutional ages of 101 and 103, respectively, Girls Scouts and Boy Scouts continue to be a popular choice for youths who want to explore the outdoors and learn life skills. Locally, the number of Scouts is impressive: 29,000 Girls Scouts in the 27 counties of Western Pennsylvania; 25,000 Boy Scouts in 10 southwestern counties.
In recent years, the regional councils for both organizations have made special efforts to reach out to young people with disabilities to make sure they know they are welcome, that activities can be adapted or modified as needed, and that all leaders are ready to be inclusive.
The intent is "not just to include Scouts with disabilities, but to advance them through the ranks," said Bob Zelleznick, program specialist for the Boy Scouts' Trailblazer district, which oversees special needs Scouting throughout the 10-county Laurel Highlands Council.
"Every Scout can achieve, given the chance," Mr. Zelleznick said.
Among local Scouts with disabilities, Aaron Fajerski, 18, of Claysville, Washington County, stands out. Aaron, who has cerebral palsy, reached the rank of Eagle Scout in 2011, an achievement that only 4 percent of all Scouts reach.
"He did it and it wasn't easy," said Mr. Zelleznick. Aaron earned 32 badges, many of them related to his interests in fitness, nature conservation and the outdoors. Along the way, he won two statewide awards for conservation and forestry, the Boy Scout World Conservation Award, and membership in the Order of the Arrow honor society.
"He's a very hard worker," said Aaron's father, Mark Fajerski, who serves with his son as assistant Scoutmaster of Troop 1025, based in Washington. Hiking and other outdoor activities are Aaron's forte despite the fact that he uses a walker, his father said. "I can't begin to say how proud I am of him."
"If someone with my disability can do it, then others can, too," said Aaron, who says he plans to give back to Scouting by staying involved even after he goes on to college this fall.
"Aaron's success has been wonderful not only for Trailblazers but for Scouting in general," said Mr. Zelleznick, whose program supports the inclusion of Scouts with disabilities in traditional Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout troops and co-ed Venturing crews. In addition, it sponsors customized groups at special education schools such as the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children.
Mr. Zelleznick made a career change to work for the Boy Scouts' Trailblazer unit after more than two decades in the business world. He said he was drawn to the effort because of his passion for Scouting and desire to make a difference in people's lives. His sons, ages 14 and 16, are members of Bethel Park Troop 228 where he is the assistant leader.
Trailblazers also provided an unexpected career path for George Jones, 26, of Plum, an economics graduate of Case Western University who has a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome. Mr. Jones joined the staff two years ago and leads 13 Scouting groups.
Although Mr. Jones didn't continue from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts in his youth, he says he wishes he had. "What Scouts do -- learning about a lot of different things -- matches my learning style," he said, adding that his current work has helped him develop public speaking skills that he felt were lacking. "Now I'm speaking to groups of five to 30 people for two to three hours each day."
Youth who are involved in specialized Trailblazer groups also participate in the wider range of local, regional and national activities. For example, Scouts from Mon Valley School, a special education school in Jefferson Hills, held their annual Pinewood Derby at Lebanon Presbyterian Church in West Mifflin on March 19. The church's pastor, Bob Titus, has three sons who are Scouts -- twins Joshua and Josiah, 15, and Patrick-Kanen ("P.K."), 18. P.K., a Mon Valley student who has muscular dystrophy, belongs to the troop that meets at the school in addition to the troop that meets at the church and includes his two brothers.
One of the front-burner projects for the Trailblazer program is creating a training CD for Scout leaders to learn more about including Scouts with disabilities. "Leaders are looking for guidance," said Mr. Zelleznick. "They want to know what does it mean to me and how can I make it happen. They want to make sure everyone gets something out of it."
Lu Randall, executive director of Autism Connection of Pennsylvania, has led workshops about autism for Boy Scout leaders. "We talk about the brain and how and why sensory and communication issues are difficult," she explained. She also helped leaders explore ways to adapt programming and badge requirements to accommodate differences.
"Leaders had great questions about things like how to manage poor eaters on longer hiking trips to ensure adequate food intake, or what precautions to take in more remote areas in case a boy tends to wander. I found the leaders to be very proactive and thoughtful."
All girls welcome
Girl Scouts are also making efforts to reach out to girls with disabilities. The organization is engaged in an audit to ensure that its programs and facilities are ADA-compliant, said Karla Schell, senior program manager for Girl Scouts Western Pennsylvania, which covers 27 counties and includes 10 camping facilities.
Longtime Girl Scout leader Connie Feda of Troop 50732 in Crafton has become the go-to person for advice on how to include girls with health-care needs or disabilities. Her current Junior-level troop includes her two daughters, Theresa, 10, and Hannah, 13, who has Down syndrome. A few other girls in the 16-member troop have special needs as well. The troop meets at the Hawthorne Presbyterian Church in Crafton, where -- talk about tradition -- Girl Scout meetings have been held for 80 years.
Ms. Feda is helping the Girl Scouts start a program of leader-to-leader support on disability issues, much like the informal conversations that occur when the 11 leaders in the Carlynton area (Crafton, Carnegie, Rosslyn Farms) get together for their monthly meeting.
"I like to keep the support informal. Less like a training and more like a coffee," she said. "I want leaders to feel comfortable with girls who have special needs and not worry, 'What if I do something wrong?' "
"Some leaders think you have to modify everything. I say, 'Just relax. You may have to slow down a bit.' My approach is to start a project as if anyone can do it. The girls step in to help one another." She encourages leaders to come to her meetings to see for themselves. "It's not a profound, insurmountable thing."
Peer acceptance of a Scout with a disability is another concern Ms. Feda hears about. She tells leaders that the reality is just the opposite. "The girls are leading the way, seeing that we're more alike than different. What you see in the girls is amazing. I'm so proud of them."
"The girls follow the leader," she added. "If we are not including girls with special needs, then we are doing a disservice to girls."
Tina Calabro of Highland Park covers disability issues for the Post-Gazette. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published March 25, 2013 4:00 AM