AUBURN — Cody Malpass had been in the Scouts for five years when the decision was made: He should leave his troop.
He had joined the Scouts when he was 7 and soon fell in love with camping and wilderness survival training. But when he was about 12, Cody, who has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and struggles with other issues, ran headlong into some social problems. They were significant enough that his family and Scout leaders concluded the mainstream troop wasn’t a good fit anymore.
“It was decided it wasn’t right for him,” said Cody’s father, Don Malpass. “It wasn’t fair to him and it wasn’t fair to the people who were within there as well. It broke his heart that he was no longer involved in Scouts.”
So Malpass did something for his son — and for boys like him — that no one else has done in Maine. He formed the state’s only Boy Scout troop dedicated to Scouts with special needs.
“I miss the old troop still, but this one is more funner,” Cody said as he took a break from horsing around with his fellow Scouts before this week’s meeting.
Troop 121 has 10 active members who come from as far away as Oxford to meet at the United Methodist Church in Auburn every Thursday. Each boy has attention-deficit disorder, autism, emotional problems, learning disabilities or other issues. Relationships and social situations can be difficult for them and their issues can make life difficult — or impossible — in a traditional troop, even with accommodations.
But while the boys have their challenges, most regular Scout activities and learning experiences aren’t a big problem for them. And it’s those experiences, Malpass believes, that are so important in Scouting.
“I think there’s a lot of life lessons, and the camping and the social aspects,” he said. “You know, learning first aid . . . and cooking and (filling) some leadership roles and being part of something they can feel successful at.”
The boys, 11 and older, learned about Troop 121 from counselors, case workers, friends or leaders of more traditional troops. Some had tried Scouting in the past and were ecstatic to be Scouts once again.
“The attendance that we have is tremendous,” Malpass said.
The attendance at this week’s meeting: seven boys in red ball caps, red neckerchiefs and button-down uniform shirts tucked into jeans or cargo pants, one scoutmaster, two assistant scoutmasters and one parent or guardian for each boy. The high adult-to-Scout ratio is one of the accommodations Troop 121 makes. It also relies on small-group activities to keep the boys focused and to keep things running smoothly.
“They get distracted very easily,” said Assistant Scoutmaster Jay Peterson, who was himself an Eagle Scout. “(In other troops), Scouts lead other Scouts and the adults take more of a back seat.”
On Thursday, boys worked in groups of two or three, learning about computer history for a merit badge, signing Christmas cards to be sent to members of the military and learning about measurement and estimation to prepare for an upcoming outdoor treasure hunt. Before the meeting ended, the troop came back together for a game of tug of war.
While the boys worked with their Scout leaders, parents sat off to the side and chatted.
“It’s a great place to get together as parents and kind of coordinate and say, ‘Yeah, this is what’s going on with this kid,’ and, ‘How did you handle this situation?’ It’s really awesome,” said Michelle Bellanceau of Auburn, who has two boys in the troop. “I always try to recommend this troop to other parents . . . I tell them, ‘You might want to check this group out. It might be something good.'”
The meetings aren’t flawless. During a lull in activities Thursday, some of the boys got bored and rambunctious, flicking each other’s caps and bickering. But the restlessness was short-lived, and parents say the troop has helped build their sons’ patience, reduced anxiety and improved social skills.
“He’s grown so much. He had so much social anxiety,” said Wendy Record of Leeds, whose 11-year-old son has autism. “I was a little concerned at first because you have a whole bunch of different (kids). It’s not just one syndrome or disability. But the kids end up working great as a team.”
This winter, they’ll have an extra chance to showcase that teamwork. The unique troop will hold a unique fundraiser.
For $5 each, Troop 121 will pick up old Christmas trees in Auburn and discard them at one of the city’s approved sites, where they will be chipped and recycled. The one-day fundraiser will be held Jan. 5, Troop 121’s first anniversary.
The idea isn’t completely new — other troops have held similar fundraisers across the country — but it’s uncommon in this area. And, some say, badly needed.
Auburn Public Works used to pick up old Christmas trees curbside, but it hasn’t done that for years. Instead, the city offers three drop-off points and makes residents responsible for getting their trees there. Some residents do. Some don’t.
“They just end up being on the sidewalk. They sit there because we don’t pick up,” said Auburn Public Works Deputy Director Nick Labbe.
He loved Troop 121’s fundraising idea.
“It’s good for the Scouts, good for the city,” he said. “When people call here we can say, ‘Hey, we’ll send you the flier. You can help out that cause and help yourself out.'”
The troop is taking sign-ups between now and Dec. 30, with the minimum $5 donation pre-paid. Scouts will pick up trees curbside on Jan. 5.
All money will stay within Troop 121 to be used for programs, camping and activity costs in an effort to keep Scouting fees low for the boys.
“Whatever they raise would be awesome,” Bellanceau said.
What: Boy Scout Troop 121 will pick up discarded trees curbside in Auburn to raise money for troop activities.
When: Sign-ups will be accepted through Dec. 30. Pickup is Jan. 5.
Cost: $5 per tree (larger donations will be accepted)
Contact: troop121me.gmail.com, 783-0790 or http://www.troop121me.org/