As Boy Scouts, young men are taught core life skills: Leadership; camaraderie; independence; and citizenship. Along the way, they can go on camping trips.
Now, with the creation of a new troop in Darien, boys with special needs are given the same opportunities, but without the deadline to move through all the ranks before their 18th birthday.
"At the end of the day, there's not a lot of difference between the troops, except there's not a sense of urgency," said Patrick Gentile, one of two fathers who started the troop. "They could be 50 years old and still working toward an Eagle (ranking)."
More than a year ago, Tavo Reynoso was talking with an architect at a job site. The man's son has special needs and knew that Reynoso's two sons had worked their way through the Scouts program and each had received their Eagle rank. He told Reynoso that he wished his son could experience Boy Scouts as well.
So Reynoso made some phone calls and found that the closest troop that offered services to special-needs children was on Long Island. Many of the 300 Boy Scout chapters across the country have dedicated special needs troops, according to the Boy Scouts of America.
With more than 30 years of Scout leadership between the two men, they started a new troop for kids like JonCarlo Kearney, described as a "sweet 15-year-old boy" by his father.
The goal, Gentile said, is to help each boy realize his full potential.
"Its mission is to create conditions under which all boys can experience participation and service in Connecticut town life; develop new skills and exercise competence; and foster good relationships with family members and new friends," Gentile wrote in a news release.
In his time with the troop, JonCarlo, who is on the autism spectrum, has developed, his father, Reuben, said.
"He's made a lot of improvement," Reuben said. "And one of the great things is we're trying to be more social and interactive in the community."
Children who are on the autism spectrum can have social, communication or behavioral challenges.
"He loves (the Boy Scouts)," Reuben said. "We've been going out on winter hikes and shooting rockets the other day and setting up tents. It's been really tremendous for him. He's really enjoying it. He's cooperative and paying attention."
JonCarlo loves the outdoors, Reuben said.
Each Wednesday night, the troop meets at the Andrew Shaw Memorial Scout Cabin, 140 West Ave., for an hour. The meeting starts as all Scout meetings do: with the Pledge of Allegiance and Scouts honor and law.
JonCarlo and one other boy, who does not attend as regularly, are working toward achieving the Tenderfoot rank. The boys will work on obtaining their merit badges and moving up the ranks -- Second, First, Star, Life and then finally Eagle.
Gentile and Reynoso discuss the requirement they want to work toward that week and then complete a practical and hands-on activity that incorporates that requirement, like tying knots.
"We don't expect that we'll get through a program in one sitting," Reynoso said. "We talk about current movies, we go off on tangents, but it all flows."
Reuben said there is a structure in place for JonCarlo and the other Scouts, but it's less regimented than school.
"This is fun because if we're tying knots and he isn't able to do it, it's fine," Reuben said. "It's not a big deal; there's no pressure."
"Special needs troop" is only a title, Reynoso said.
"It just runs a little slower," he said. "The Scouts still need to be active in the community."
Much like Troops 53 and 35 -- the others in town -- the new one must be involved in the community. So every Wednesday the troop puts together 35 brown-bag dinners for children at the Washington Village Learning Center in Norwalk, whose parents may not be able to provide a nutritious meal during the week.
"Just spending time with him is great," Reuben said about his time with JonCarlo. "It's a joy doing things that we may not normally do. We're bonding even more now doing these kinds of activities."
The goal is to get the troop to be self-sustaining, but to do so, Gentile and Reynoso must have five boys as members. For now, it operates under the purview of Troop 53, which includes Scouts who live north of I-95. Troop 35 is for Scouts who live south of the interstate.
Many of the older boys in Troop 35 will come to special-needs troop meetings to work with the Scouts and develop leadership.
"The concept is the boys leading the boys with parental oversight," Reynoso said. "So when the boys lead the boys, it's the best of all worlds. Boys really learn from each other and teach each other."
The troop is not confined to just Darien. Gentile and Reynoso said the troop is open to all boys in the surrounding towns.
"Every day is a learning process," Reynoso said. "We hope that more people join, because it is a lot of fun and (the Scouts) gets so much out of it."
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