Here's to Your Health

A weekend’s variation on the traditional camporee educates New York Scouts about challenges faced by people dealing with disabilities and disease.

Navigating in a wheelchair poses some unexpected difficulties for Kevin Leung of Pack 255.

Robert Marble, an assistant Scoutmaster for Troop 357 in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., listed all the things to think about when navigating a wheelchair through a door:

  •  Lean forward so that the chair doesn’t flip backward, throwing you out of it.
  •  Reach for the knob.
  •  With one hand on the door handle, back the chair up with your other hand.
  •  Somehow manage not to veer sideways or to crash into anything.
  •  While still holding the door open, roll through the opening.

Oh yes, and don’t forget to pull the door shut as you go through. Don’t use your feet to help. That’s cheating.

Daniel Lepore, a Scout from Troop 49 in Bayside, listened intently from the seat of a wheelchair and then made his first go at the doorway. He got stuck on the approach, made another attempt, banged into the doorway, forgot to close the door, and started over again. He struggled to figure out how to pivot the chair. Finally, success!

“It’s so complicated!” the sixth-grader said as he jumped up, obviously happy that his wheelchair ride was just an educational experiment.

Aid and comfort

On a blustery April Saturday, several hundred Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, and leaders gathered at the athletic field at the southern tip of Alley Pond Park, the second-largest park in the New York City borough of Queens. Here, between a tennis complex and off-ramps of the Grand Central Parkway, they hosted “Scout-Aid Exposition,” a weekend-long effort to raise awareness about physical disabilities, diseases, and other health issues.

Ramp it up: Cub Scouts from Pack 255 (from left) John Spencer (Tiger), Chase Brink, and Alexis Montoya test their wheelchair skills. Helping them out (from left) are adults Pat Seery of Pack 255, Bob Brown of Pack 75, and Gerry Califano, assistant Scoutmaster of Troop 1.

Dave Risueño, chairman of the Queens Council Activities Committee, said that, in a way, he’s been getting ready to plan an event like Scout Aid for all his 32 years as a Cubmaster.

“I’m an amputee,” Risueño explained after starting the event with a flag-raising ceremony. “In 1976, I was picking up my in-laws on Christmas Day. As I was loading my car, a hit-and-run driver pinned me between two bumpers and shattered my leg. My oldest son was 6 years old then. After I lost my leg, I figured, ‘I can’t teach him how to run or play sports anymore.’ So I got involved in Scouting.”

For decades, Risueño—who still hikes and camps—has been teaching boys how to cope with disabilities by example. With this variation on the spring camporee, Risueño, Alan Perl, Scoutmaster of Troop 138 in Fresh Meadows, and the other members of the Queens Council Activities Committee hoped to go beyond a simple start to the camping season: getting Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts to pick a disease or disorder, learn about it, and then take that knowledge out into the community.

It took two years of planning—reaching out to organizations such as Lighthouse for the Blind, Alcoholics Anonymous, North Shore University Hospital, compiling a list of ailments to feature, clearing dates with the city parks department, figuring out how to get around the city ban on campfires (two floodlights work in a pinch). Then the committee spent three months designing and building the crutch and wheelchair practice course: ramps, doors, and stairs that all conformed to standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“OK, now get closer to the step,” Risueño advised Kevin Bucca, a Webelos Scout from Pack 237 in Howard Beach. “OK, now you’ve got to carry both crutches under one arm… No, you can’t leave one at the bottom. How will you get back down again? … OK, now jump. Jump up! Good!”

Once he’d made it safely down the stairs, both crutches and all, Bucca beamed. “It was surprisingly hard,” the fourth-grader said, a little out of breath. “It was hard to balance.”

Pick a topic

The activities committee compiled a list of 100 possible health issues to highlight. From that list, each troop and pack picked a topic for a booth and an activity: One troop set up exercise equipment, another prepared a display of healthy snacks, still another handed out information on the importance of donating blood, which is often in short supply.

How do blind people make a peanut butter sandwich? Pack 142’s Austin Fan finds out.

Many troops picked a disorder that had affected a family member in some way: Steven Schwartzberg serves as Scoutmaster of Troop 55 in the Fresh Meadows neighborhood but also practices as a pediatric neurologist. His troop prepared materials on epilepsy, a brain disorder that causes seizures.

“Remember, don’t hold someone down if they’re having a seizure. Move all sharp objects out of their reach. Call 911, just in case the seizure lasts more than a few minutes,” Schwartzberg explained to each group that approached.

One of the Scouts in Troop 138, also of Fresh Meadows, has struggled with a parent’s alcoholism, so his troop got two volunteers from Alcoholics Anonymous to help man a booth about teen drinking. A steady trickle of curious boys stopped by.

“They’ve been asking really good questions,” said Daniel (AA members don’t use last names.) “How do you know if you have a problem? Can you stop?”

All afternoon, Scouts clustered around the booth on vision awareness. Kyle Sturcken, a committee member of Troop 142 in Bayside, suffers from a progressive eye disorder that has left him legally blind. Yet Sturcken still manages a career as an attorney for the City of New York Department of Investigation. His troop challenged Scouts to put on a blindfold and try to make a peanut butter sandwich.

Austin Fan, a Cub Scout in Pack 142, stood rigid as his blindfold was adjusted. Then he felt around the table for a plastic knife and shuffled in the plastic bag for a piece of whole wheat bread. Ready to go, he picked up a cylinder of Wet Ones wipes and started trying to unscrew the top. He twisted and twisted and twisted. Finally, after a minute or two, someone took pity on him. “Austin, let me give you a clue. That’s not peanut butter.” A bit more feeling around, and Austin found the right jar.

Raising awareness

“People used to think about Scouting as just helping little old ladies across the street. It’s broadened tremendously,” said Perl, as he watched Fan happily eat his hard-won sandwich. “Now it means helping people in many different contexts. We hope now if these Scouts see someone in a wheelchair, or a blind person with a cane, they’ll think differently.”

Many of the Scouts who participated in Scout Aid will likely retain what they learned because they had to speak publicly about it. Pack 255, from the Flushing neighborhood, researched “neurofibromatosis,” a genetic disorder that affects how nerve cells grow.

Melanie Seery, the wife of Pack 255’s assistant Cubmaster, Pat Seery, has the disease, as does her son, Cub Scout Matthew, and her daughter Ashley.

“We want people to know about neurofibromatosis,” said Young Kim, without skipping a beat on the difficult word. “It’s not contagious. It’s not a cancer; it’s a tumor.” Kim looked up to Seery for encouragement.

“It’s amazing how much they’ve learned,” Seery said, beaming, adding that she and her children have mild cases of the disease.

“We hoped this would be an event that would bring out the public, and it did,” said Risueño of the activities committee. “Otherwise, people would just see a bunch of tents in the park. This raises awareness, it lets people know that Scouts are still active in the community.”

Brooklyn-based writer Heather Millar has contributed health articles to MoreHealthAmerican Baby,Good Housekeeping, and Family Circle magazines.

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