Friday, December 9, 2011
Special-needs Scout Steve Lape awaits Eagle Scout award
After more than three decades and 27 merit badges, Steve Lape is ready to receive the highest honor in the Boy Scouts - his Eagle Scout Award.
Becoming an Eagle Scout is an honor for anyone, but Lape's case is even more noteworthy: He's 53 years old and has Down syndrome. Recently, he's begun to experience dementia.
"No one's too old to be a Boy Scout," said Charlie Opp, a leader of Lape's troop and one of the volunteers who lead Troop 594. Based in South St. Paul, it serves adults with special needs.
Though Lape can still walk, he generally uses a wheelchair. He wears a Scout uniform shirt and a sash full of merit badges to his Scout meetings. The smile is the first thing people notice about him.
"Steve has a signature grin that just warms everybody's heart. It lights up an entire room," Scoutmaster Jim Rupert said.
It's a smile he's been sharing with Troop 594 for a long time.
Lape's father, Jack, encouraged Lape to join when the troop was founded in 1973. At the time, Steve was living alone with his father, who thought scouting would give him something to do besides his job at Goodwill.
"The troop became a pretty big part of his social life," Jack Lape said. It also gave him a chance to experience new things. "At summer camp, they shot arrows, walked in the woods, and they had a bunch of fun there."
Steve Lape is the only founding member still with Troop 594. The troop was larger in the past but today has five members, ages 44 to 68. They've been together with the troop since the 1980s.
Jim Rupert, Troop 594's scoutmaster for the past 11 years, said camping is out for the troop now, given members' ages. But that doesn't mean the troop is not active.
"We have a meeting every other week, and we work on one or two merit badges a year," he said.
Each meeting is split in two parts. Skills instruction or merit badge work takes up the first half. Then Rupert pulls out a portable magnetic dart board for the scouts to play. They are encouraged to do their best and the leaders carefully keep score.
"Sometimes after we're done with the first half of the meeting, I'll ask the Scouts what we should do next. They're always quick to say, 'Darts!' They really enjoy playing," Rupert said.
PARTIES KEEP THEM TOGETHER
It was the social element that first brought Steve Lape to the troop and has kept him with it.
"That's been one of our key issues all of these years: we're going to have a good time," said Opp, the troop's charter organization representative. "We have five guys, all in pretty much the same age category, who know one another and keep coming back for more."
Troop 594's calendar includes a spring picnic, a summer mini-golf outing and Halloween and Christmas
parties. The troop also carries out a service project for the Optimist Club of St. Paul - the troop's sponsor since its founding - by conducting a flag ceremony at their annual holiday meeting.
Troop leaders also recognized the role that special events play in keeping the troop going. "Parties are a real important part of keeping us connected and together," Opp said.
As the troop's longest serving member, "Steve's led his peers by his docile temperament and his pleasant smile," according to his sister Alex Lape. "That's just who he is."
Lape's father and sister give credit to the troop leaders, past and present, for the success Steve has had.
"They're tremendous people who have been so generous with their time over the months and years," Jack Lape said.
Opp has a different view.
"We wouldn't do it if we didn't get something out of it," he said. "You see the world differently today than when you joined."
The troop's leaders - Opp, Rupert and many others - worked hard over the years to help the scouts advance. By early 2011, all members of the troop had completed the requirements for Eagle Scout rank with the exception of the required service project.
TIME IS TIGHT
Boy Scouts typically have until their 18th birthday to earn their Eagle Scout rank. Scouts with special needs don't have that deadline.
Renee Fairrer, manager of public relations with the Boy Scouts of America, based in Irving, Texas, said on average between 20 and 30 scouts with special needs earn their Eagle Scout Award each year. That contrasts with the 57,000 traditional scouts who earned the award in 2010.
"It's highly unusual for a scout (Steve's) age to receive it," Fairrer said.
She added that the Boy Scouts began tailoring activities for those with special needs in the 1960s.
Special-needs scouts still need to complete all the requirements expected of any other Scout. This is a challenge even though a "reasonable accommodation" can be made to fit the merit badge and rank requirements to the level of each individual.
"Originally, we wanted to have all five earn their Eagle Scout rank at the same time," Rupert said.
But in January 2011, Steve Lape's health began to decline. His dementia had been diagnosed five years ago. At that time he had to move from the 15-person home he had lived in in South St. Paul for 25 years to a six-person home in Arden Hills where he could get more personalized care.
Rupert and Opp decided to help Lape push forward with the service project - before his health declined much further.
In October, Lape led a group of 15 volunteers to complete several winterizing projects at the nonprofit North Star Museum of Boy Scouting and Girl Scouting.
With his Eagle Scout service project complete, all that remains for Lape to do is pass a board of review and wait for his application to be approved by the national Boy Scouts. If that goes as planned, he'll be presented with his award at a ceremony in January.
In the meantime, Lape has continued to slow down. He no longer likes to go out at night and it has become painful for him to stand.
Lape also speaks less than he did in the past.
He still has the smile.
"It's the only part of his soul still visible to me," Alex Lape said.
By Jacob T. Piekarski firstname.lastname@example.org