How Scouter Karen Jones helps special-needs Scouts succeed

Karen-Jones-ScoutingAs the mother of two Eagle Scouts, Karen Jones was happy to help her sons’ troop however she could, including serving as a patrol leader advisor and Life-to-Eagle coordinator. But the longtime special-education teacher really found her calling when she joined the Heart of America Council’s Scouts with Disabilities Committee in 2008.

On the committee, which she now chairs, Jones has advocated for mainstreaming Scouts with disabilities whenever possible — and providing them, their parents, their peers and their unit leaders with the tools they need to succeed. She has advised families and Scout leaders in her council and beyond, and she recently helped develop a training module on strategies for making meetings and outings work for special-needs Scouts.

Last May, Jones received the Woods Services Award for exceptional service and leadership benefiting Scouts with disabilities. Each year, just one BSA volunteer receives this award.

Who benefits from being in a special-needs unit? The ones who will always be in supported living, who will always be in supported employment, who won’t be able to attain Eagle by the time they’re 18 because their pace and their steps are going to be significantly slowed down. I sat at the Eagle court of honor for a Scout who was 43 years old. That was awesome; he was so excited.

What’s the first step in mainstreaming a Scout? In the initial interview, the parent needs to sit down with the Scoutmaster or the den leader and the Cubmaster and say, “Here’s my son. Here are his strengths, his weaknesses, his quirks. Do you have enough resources in this group?”

One resource is the parent, right? Yes. The parent’s first responsibility is communication and working with the leaders; their second responsibility is support. That support comes in the form of extra hands to work with other Scouts on activities and campouts while someone works with their son. It can also mean taking their son out for a break or even home so that if a behavior escalates, the Scout has maintained his respect and dignity. The parent’s involvement and honesty in communication will determine the success of the Scout.

How have you helped Scouts with disabilities earn Eagle-required merit badges? I had one young man with a brilliant mind and a deteriorating body due to muscular dystrophy. He uses a power chair and thought he couldn’t do the Hiking merit badge. I said, “Why can’t you use your wheelchair? That counts, and here’s a list of all the state parks that have paved trails so you have accessibility to do all your hiking.”

What about alternative merit badge requirements? We had a Scout who was a brain cancer survivor and didn’t have use of his left arm. We chose to have him do the Archery merit badge instead of Swimming, Hiking or Cycling. I made arrangements that one of the counselors would hold the bow for him, and he would pull back the string and shoot the target. That’s a hard merit badge, but the boy did it. It was just as much physical work for him to accomplish as the Swimming merit badge.

What do you tell Scouts who serve as buddy Scouts? Be very clear in your directions, and don’t have a lot of fluff. Say, “Stand here,” not “Stand here because we’re going to have circle-up and they’re going to be doing announcements.” Also, be a good role model around them. If they see bad behavior, they’ll imitate it.

Tell US about ‘Camp Henry.’ Henry was a young man in our troop who wouldn’t stay in his tent at night. On a 10-day camp, the Scoutmaster recruited a different older boy to stay in Camp Henry — Henry’s tent — every night. He would have enough energy to stay up all night long, play flashlight tag on the ceiling, giggle, carry on and get no sleep. Then, another boy would move in the next night.

How did that work out? It went wonderfully. Nine boys got to know Henry. They learned his strengths and weaknesses and found out he could do more than they thought he could. Back home, they treated him as just another Scout instead of as this special kid in the troop.

So Henry stayed in the troop? Yes. He’s an Eagle Scout now.

Fact Sheet: Karen Jones

Years as a Scout Volunteer: 17

Current City: Kansas City, Mo.

Current Positions: Life-to-Eagle coordinator, Troop 1314; Scouts with Disabilities Committee chair, Heart of America Council; member, National Disabilities Awareness Task Force

Day Jobs: YMCA lifeguard, swim instructor and adaptive aquatics coordinator; part-time special educator

Proudest Moment in Scouting: Watching Scouts with disabilities scale the climbing wall at her council’s Scouting 500 event. “At one point, we had five Scouts climbing up to the top to ring the bell, and all five were special-needs Scouts. Not one person on the ground was impatient. They all cheered.”

Favorite Camp: H. Roe Bartle Scout Reservation, Osceola, Mo., especially its Tribe of Mic-O-Say honor society.



  1. A great article! We work with several scouts who have learning disabilities. I am the Scoutmaster and my wife the CC. We raised 3 kids with disabilities. Our youngest has been in scouts since Tigers. He has ADHD and other disabilities but was successful in becoming an Eagle Scout. Now 18 he is working on training to be an ASM. Our second Eagle had ADHD and was bipolar. These boys work hard and with some proper direction and alternates when necessary can do everything any scout can do.

  2. Very inspiring article. I am a cub scout leader and would like to see more individuals with special needs to become involved with the Scouting program. I would like to learn more about the programs and training that might be available to leaders, assistants. and den chiefs.

  3. Such an encouraging article! How can I gain access to the new training module mentioned at the beginning of the article??

  4. Does anyone have any ideas for an Eagle Ceremony for a special-needs Scout that is not too long and is bearable for a Scout with a limited attention span?

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