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 special. For more than 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 Gordon has Down syndrome, "he stands a little taller."
Scouts like Mark Drummond, 36, can attest to that. For 24 years he worked for scouting's top honor, Eagle Scout, clinching it by leading a park-bench building project. "When I made Eagle, my heart dropped to my ankle," says Drummond, who has autism and bipolar disorder.
In their time with the troop, they've also picked up life-saving skills. One night in 1994, after Jerry Ard choked on a pork chop, his son, Bradley, 40, who has Down syndrome, sprung into action, performing the Heimlich maneuver. "I love my father so much," says Bradley. "I didn't want him to get hurt."
Derek Connell, 55, who has Aspberger's syndrome, says he and his fellow scouts owe a lot to the Colemans. "If we make a mistake, Mr. C keeps working with us," says the Eagle Scout.
Adds Keith MacPhail, 43, who was born deaf and with Down syndrome, and has earned 51 badges: "I love them."
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