BROOKSVILLE — Hundreds of Scouts from 16 troops across Florida camped at Sand Hill Scout Reservation for a week earlier this month. With nearly identical uniforms, it was hard to tell the troops apart.
Except for Troop 219.
Troop 219 specializes in special-needs Scouts. Though they have six registered members, only three were able to make it to the camp with an adult to supervise — an unwritten rule the troop has implemented.
But despite being the smallest troop at the camp, everyone knew about 219 before the end of the week.
• • •
The troop began with Frank Smith Jr., better known as "Frankie," and his father, Frank Smith Sr. They joined Troop 219 10 years ago after seeing that it was sponsored by the local Moose Lodge. After a couple of years, all the Scouts became Eagle Scouts or just grew up and moved on.
That left Frank as the Scout leader for Frankie and two other Scouts who rarely participated. Their Scouting activities were limited to tagging along with other troops to march in parades and occasionally picking up a merit badge.
"We looked for years to find anything he would fit into," Frank said of his son, who is autistic and mentally disabled. "Seeing things that he wouldn't be able to do was really tough."
So Frank took it upon himself to do some recruiting.
The first Scout to join Frank and Frankie was Shawn Taylor. Shawn was diagnosed as legally blind when he was 2 years old due to nystagmus, which causes his eyes to dart back and forth. His grandmother signed him up for the troop because he was being bullied at school.
"The bullying started when I was in fifth grade. People kept calling me four-eyes because of my eye disorder and obviously me wearing glasses," said Shawn, who lives with his parents in Tampa during the week and with his grandmother and stepgrandfather in Ocklawaha, in Marion County, on weekends.
He has never been bullied in Boy Scouts, and the bullying has reduced dramatically since he entered high school at Robinson, in South Tampa, last year.
Frankie and Shawn were joined by Eric Lindberg, an 18-year-old from St. Petersburg participating in his first Boy Scout camp. Eric joined Troop 219 last November after his parents got frustrated with his former troop in Pinellas County. Eric's stepfather, Roy Zeches, said the troop didn't know how to work with Eric, who has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, and didn't involve him in any activities.
"Me and my wife just thought that he should be able to do things because he can do pretty much everything the other boys can do. It's just a delayed process," Zeches said. "So when Frank came along and said his troop was special needs and they had people who knew how to handle that we said 'Great, we can put him in there.' "
• • •
There were plenty of highlights for Troop 219 during their week at Sand Hill Scout Reservation. Eric built a rocket, and successfully launched it, to earn his space exploration badge. The troop members earned their horsemanship badges after spending two mornings riding and grooming horses. Shawn earned one of the most difficult badges offered at Sand Hill — archery.
And Frankie earned his 40th merit badge.
But for Frank Sr., the week was about more than fun and merit badges. Because of his service in the Army Reserves, he admits he was not always a constant presence in his boy's life. But for the past 10 years, the two have almost always been side-by-side.
"What's nice is now I can make it up," he said. "A lot of dads don't have that opportunity with their kids, and my guy, for a lot of things, is a perpetual kid. So I'm getting the kid time with him now."