To scoutmaster Joe Vaughn, “Boys with disabilities are scouts with possibilities.”
Vaughn coined that phrase off a former scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 724, a group of 17 scouts ranging in age from 16 to 38, all with special needs.
The troop is based in Crestwood, but encompasses members from St. Louis and beyond, including one member from Pacific and another from Leslie.
Vaughn, who has a stepson in the troop, took on the scoutmaster position in 1999. Over the years, he realized that one of the biggest challenges he faced was not in finding what they were able to do, but getting them to realize they could do it.
“One of the biggest problems for these boys was low self-esteem,” he said. “I made it my mission to boost that.”
Three years ago Vaughn formed a color guard in hopes of fulfilling that mission.
“We started out doing small events,” he said. “It grew and blossomed and now we are the only special needs Boy Scouts of America color guard.”
Vaughn decided to make his color guard look more official and gave each boy a red beret, something he said used to be a part of the Scout’s uniform that had mostly gone by the wayside.
For Vaughn’s guys, the berets seemed to work magic, he said.
“When they put on those berets, their self-esteem went through the roof,” he said.
A Popular Group
Vaughn’s color guard is in high demand these days. The group officiates at least three to four ceremonies a month for all occasions, including Special Olympics, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Independence Day and parades.
The troop carries eight to 10 flags at each ceremony, including the U.S. flag, the Missouri state flag, a POW-MIA, and flags of all the branches of military service.
They were the first non-military group in 28 to officiate as color guard for the Veterans Day ceremony in Downtown St. Louis last year.
The troop takes its job seriously, Vaughn said, and its members strive for perfection at every event.
However, there have been some skeptics.
At one ceremony, Vaughn said there were three Marines in the front row who were “looking for any imperfections” in the color guard’s presentation.
“My guys did a perfect job,” he said. “They turned those Marines into jelly and by the end of the ceremony those big, tough Marines were outside shaking my guys’ hands and congratulating them. My guys may not be able to do a whole lot, but they can carry their flags. My guys work and everybody loves us.”
It is the troop’s abilities that got them attention from a Navajo reservation in Hard Rock, Ariz. Members of the Navajo elders invited the troop to go out there to help on the reservation and learn the “old ways,” Vaughn said. But the problem was, to take all the boys it would cost $7,500.
So they came up with the idea to sell T-shirts to raise the money.
At the same time, the troop also was raising money through flag retirement ceremonies to buy new flags to put on graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery for Memorial Day.
The goal was to retire 2,013 flags for 2013. The boys asked for $1 donation for each flag retired.
Vaughn said the boys only retired 100 flags, and along with a $250 donation, only had enough money to buy 500 flags.
Then the boys did something totally unselfish.
“They put the funds raised from the T-shirts for their trip and presented Jefferson Barracks with 2,500 flags,” Vaughn said.
The boys are still selling the T-shirts, and are determined to make the trip to Arizona next year. The shirts can be viewed and purchased on the troop’s website at www.troop724bsa.org.
Planning the Trip
Vaughn said he flew out to the reservation recently and noticed an old graveyard with 12 communicators from World War II buried there, along with 23 Vietnam veterans.
When the boys go out there, Vaughn said they plan to ask special permission from the Navajo elders to clean up the cemetery and refurbish and replace the white crosses at each grave. They also want to retire the old flags there and put up new ones, giving a small portion of the retired flags’ ashes to the deceased veterans’ relatives in a solemn ceremony.
“The boys can really learn a lot from the Navajos,” Vaughn said.
Why Special Needs Scouting?
Vaughn said with all the buzz about “inclusion” there has been talk about eliminating special needs troops and mainstreaming them into other Boy Scout troops.
“It won’t work,” he said. “They can’t do it. The mainstream kids will move too fast for these guys and they will quit. Or they will slow the mainstream guys down and they will quit. We need to keep special needs Scouting.”
Vaughn said he welcomes new members to the troop, and there is no age limit or residency requirement to join Troop 724.
For more information, people may call Vaughn at 314-398-7052, or visit the troop’s website listed above.