Florida's Troop 409: Boy Scouts, With a Difference

Richard and Claudia Coleman thought they’d sail their boat and enjoy the easy life after retiring to Pensacola, Fla., in 1986. Then Richard answered an ad in the paper: A special-needs Boy Scout troop sought an assistant leader. Before long he’d taken over and, with Claudia’s help, built the group into something really special. Over the past 25 years Troop 409, whose members are mostly grown men with disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism and spina bifida, has earned 1,000 merit badges and produced eight Eagle Scouts. Richard, 66, a former Air Force sergeant, deploys tough love to teach skills like cooking over an open fire, building weather vanes and staking out campsites. “To me they aren’t disabled,” he says. “They’re scouts, and that’s how I treat them.” Parents say the troop bestows the sense of dignity and accomplishment any of them would want for their child. “Every time Gordon gets a merit badge,” says Teresa Roser, whose 23-year-old son has Down syndrome, “he stands a little taller.”


“When I made Eagle, my heart dropped to my ankle,” says Mark Drummond, 36 (above, with mom Nivia at his badge ceremony). Drummond, who has autism and bipolar disorder, spent 24 years working for scouting’s top honor, clinching it by leading a park-bench building project. He takes special pride in the riflery badge he earned after winning a musket competition: “They had balloons set up at 50 ft. I shot it dead center.” Drummond’s dad, Bill, says scouting has transformed the troubled boy he and Nivia adopted from foster care at age 13. “He’s had such an up-and-down life,” Bill says. “We are so proud.”

Bradley Ard, 40


One night in 1994, Ard’s dad, Jerry (left, with him), started losing consciousness after choking on a pork chop. Ard (inset, age 17), who has Down syndrome, performed the Heimlich maneuver he’d learned at scout meetings. “He told me to stay calm,” Jerry says. One of a small number of scouts to earn the heroism medal, the Eagle Scout downplays his heroics: “I love my father so much,” he says. “I didn’t want him to get hurt.'”

Derek Connell, 55


“If we make a mistake, Mr. C keeps working with us,” says Eagle Scout Connell (above, with a knot he tied for a catapult, and, inset, when he joined at age 29), who has Asperger’s syndrome. “We participate in the same activities as any scout to earn our patches; due to our disabilities, it takes us longer. If we work together, we can accomplish it.”


Keith MacPhail (above center, setting up a catapult with scout Gordon Roser and Roser’s dad, Mike) joined the troop at 13. Born deaf and with Down syndrome, MacPhail, 43, has earned 51 badges. His dad, John, says the troop “has been a godsend” for Eagle Scout Keith. “You’ll never find better people than the Colemans.” Adds Keith: “I love them.” Roser, 23, who has Down syndrome, led a lonely life until he joined in 2005; last year he helped hand out badges. “I need Mr. C,” he says.


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