BSA volunteer finds calling helping Scouts with disabilities

Photo of Scout volunteers in the special needs area at the National Scout Jamboree
Eleanor Philips, center, with her grandson, left, and another staffer at the National Scout Jamboree. Photo courtesy of Eleanor Philips

Even as a child, Eleanor Philips felt an affinity toward kids who didn’t fit the norm.

“Those were always the kids I gravitated towards,” she says.

Now 72, Philips is nearing 40 years as a Greater St. Louis Area Council Scout volunteer, almost all of which have been spent assisting Scouts with disabilities.

She is currently the Scoutmaster for one troop made up entirely of Scouts who are disabled, and assistant Scoutmaster of another troop a few miles away with the same makeup.

A portrait of Scout volunteer Eleanor Philips
Eleanor Philips

She does not modify any requirements, and she does not allow any of the members to skip a particularly challenging requirement.

Instead, she simply allows them to take their time.

It might take some members 2-3 years to earn a single merit badge. That’s OK, because most of her Scouts have been approved to be registered beyond the age of eligibility.

(The youngest Scout is 11. The oldest is 55.)

“I break everything down into chunks they can do,” she says. “In school, they see themselves failing a lot and not being able to keep up with their peers. In Scouting, everybody sees they’re making progress and getting rewarded for what they’re doing.”

How it started

When Philips’ own son was in elementary school, she noticed that he was seemingly content to lay around all day and read books.

Reading is great, thought Philips, but she wanted him to be active, too. So, she signed him up for Cub Scouts.

Years later, as she found herself spending more and more time volunteering with the Scouts, one of her friends who had a son with special needs asked if Scouting would be a good fit for her boy.

“Of course,” Philips told her friend. “Why not?”

And that was how it all started.

That same boy is now 44 and is still a member of Philips’ troop.

A photo of Scouts at summer camp
Photo courtesy of Eleanor Philips

“They do all the requirements”

Philips’ Scouts go camping. They work on merit badges. Many of them become Eagle Scouts. Just like every other troop.

“They do all the requirements,” she says. “They just do them at a slower pace.”

Her Scouts have a variety of special needs, including Down syndrome and severe autism.

She was recently awarded the BSA’s Woods Services Award for serving Scouts with special needs. She also serves on the Greater St. Louis Area Council special needs committee, helping to make Scouting accessible to members of all ability levels.

Most of the Scouts cannot read, so Philips has them verbally explain what they’ve learned.

She takes tons of photos and uses them to remind the Scouts about the activities they’ve already completed.

She recruits merit badge counselors who are comfortable working with Scouts with disabilities. Or, if they don’t have any experience but are willing to learn, she patiently explains what they should expect.

“The most common mistake is they think the Scouts can’t do it,” Philips says. “They want to dumb it down. They want to say, ‘oh, you don’t have to do that requirement.’

“And I say, ‘yes, they do have to do it. But let’s think about how we can make it possible for them to do it.’”

A photo of Scouts at camp
Photo courtesy of Eleanor Philips

“They can do it”

Like many troops, the highlight of the year for Philips’ Scouts is summer camp.

“They participate in all the activities just like everyone else, and the other kids include them,” she says. “Before it’s over, they’re already asking if they can come back next year.”

Eleanor played a key role in helping S bar F Scout Ranch develop a fully accessible campsite, complete with things like access to electricity (for medical equipment) and paved walkways (for wheelchairs).

She has taken Scouts to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and to Philmont Scout Ranch.

Last summer, she helped direct the special needs and disabilities area at the National Scout Jamboree with her 21-year-old grandson, who has autism.

Occasionally, she’ll think about retiring as a Scout volunteer. As an older Scout reaches the rank of Eagle, or achieves all they set out to achieve, she might think for a bit that maybe she’s done enough.

But then, along comes the next 11-year-old, who’s maybe struggled to fit in with his peers, struggled to keep pace in school, struggled possibly even to make friends.

And it’s at that point that Eleanor Philips knows what she has to do.

“Every time I get a new Scout, they look at me like, ‘no one has ever let me do this before,’ and that makes me more determined to help them do it,” she says. “They feel so empowered because people listen to them.

“They can do it. They can be leaders. They just want to be treated like everyone else.”

A photo of Scout volunteer Eleanor Philips
Philips, photographed at the National Scout Jamboree. Photo courtesy of Eleanor Philips

About Aaron Derr 391 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.