Lee Levinson's troop gave him a boisterous cheer as Assistant Scoutmaster Jerry Grim welcomed him to the rank of second-class Boy Scout.

The ceremony was a moment of triumph for the 16-year-old Scout, who has cerebral palsy and is visually impaired. It took him almost 2 1/2 years to move from tenderfoot status to the second-class rank -- a transition that takes six months for most Scouts.

Such milestones are cause for celebration in Troop 730, where the Scouts are mentally and physically disabled. The Towson area troop will commemorate 25 years of such successes at an awards dinner today.

Jimmy Dietrich, 33, also will be on hand. The Eagle Scout, who has Down syndrome, is part of Explorer Post 730, an offshoot of Troop 730 that was formed to provide more physical challenges for handicapped members.

The Explorer post, which includes women, also will celebrate as it notes its fifth birthday and a change of direction. It is in the midst of becoming a "ship," or Sea Explorer post, which will allow its seven members to stretch their sea legs.

"It exposes them to different elements," said Jimmy's father, Frank L. Dietrich, an adult leader for more than 20 years. "Scouting is a challenge to any of these children."

Most of the Scouts are not children, but their innocence is evident. "You've got to love them. They all have some quality that offsets their handicaps," Mr. Grim said at a recent Scout meeting, where he was surrounded by teens and men with such afflictions as muscular dystrophy and autism.

It's not unusual to see graying hair and mature, bushy mustaches among the 45 troop members because there is no age limit for mentally disabled Scouts. The oldest Troop 730 Scout is 68. He is deaf.

But the disabled Scouts earn badges in the same manner as any other, with a few exceptions when the physical demands are impossible or impractical.

"We take it one step at a time," said Mr. Grim, whose son, Jerry Jr., is an Eagle Scout. Jerry Jr., who is 38 and has multiple birth defects, worked for 17 years to achieve the coveted rank. Usually, it takes about 2 1/2 years.

He diligently crocheted lap rugs for veterans as part of his Eagle project.

For many Scouts in the troop, the meetings are their only outside activity. Several parents said they arrive home on meeting nights to find their sons dressed in uniform and waiting to leave.

"It's my social life, too," said Marie Gonnsen of Kingsville, who takes her 48-year-old son, Alan, to the weekly gatherings at the special education White Oak School near Perring Parkway and Taylor Avenue.

She and other mothers gathered around a table last week while the Scouts held their meeting. They were having such a good time chatting that the Scouts good-naturedly held up three fingers several times -- their cue that the noise was too loud.

But it's a commitment the parents and other adults have made to the Scouts. Oscar "Otts" Johansen, the "perennial treasurer" of the troop, has continued his involvement even after his son, who had muscular dystrophy, died in 1980.

Then there's Jean Hubbard, who lives in Charles County in Southern Maryland. She makes a 200-mile round trip so her son, Jeffrey, 23, can attend meetings. "He lives for it," she said.

The Grims, who live in Airville, Pa., tackle a 68-mile car ride. Mr. Grim, the troop's first Scoutmaster, started Troop 730 in 1970 because "there was nothing for handicapped Scouts." Two of the five original members are still in the troop. The other three died.

Lynn and Joe Shaw also give their time to Scouting. They travel twice a month from Burtonsville in Montgomery County to meet with the Explorer post at Babcock Presbyterian Church in Loch Raven Village.

Mr. Shaw is the skipper, or main leader, of the new Sea Explorers. Mrs. Shaw is an adult leader.

Unlike the other leaders, they do not have a disabled child in the post. Mr. Shaw explains their involvement simply: "By the grace of God, one of those children could have been our child. Your reward is seeing them grow up."

The Baltimore Area Council of Boy Scouts of America understands why the families travel long distances to be part of the groups. "It's like sending your child to a really good school," said Laura Seefeldt, special projects program director for the council. However, the council, just like the education system, encourages inclusion.

"Our belief is to mainstream children as much as possible," she said, adding that the council supports traditional neighborhood-based units. Units can be either Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout troops or Explorer posts.

The Baltimore Association for Retarded Citizens also agrees with the council's position, Executive Director Stephen H. Morgan said.

About 55,000 Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Explorers are in Baltimore and the five surrounding counties, Ms. Seefeldt said. Of those, about 5,000 handicapped members are in regular units. Three-hundred to 400 are in 15 special needs units.

Nationally, more than 200,000 disabled Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Explorers belong to more than 7,000 special units chartered to community organizations.

The Baltimore metropolitan area has no specialty Girl Scout troops, said Michele Curtin, a spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland. Disabled girls are incorporated into regular troops, she said.

Both Troop 730 and Explorer Post 730 are sponsored by the Civitan Club of Baltimore, a service organization that provides financial backing -- and moral support.

William R. Schmidt III, the Civitan liaison to both groups, affectionately is called "Mr. Bill" and often attends meetings.

"It's a humility lesson every time," he said. "It makes you put your problems at rest."

At last week's Sea Explorers meeting, Mr. Schmidt sat off to the side as Mr. Shaw explained such duties as boatswain, purser and yeoman to the members. The young men and women earnestly puzzled over the new terms.

"It takes a lot of repetition," Mr. Shaw said, patiently reviewing the nautical words.

Not surprisingly, a turtle is the mascot for this Sea Explorers Scouts post. "We're slow but steady," Mrs. Shaw said.

And perhaps that is why the group is considering calling itself the S.E.S. Never Sink.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad