Special needs Genesee County man becomes Eagle Scout at age 61

Posted at 11:02 AM, Feb 17, 2019

SWARTZ CREEK, Mich. (AP) — Doug Cuthbertson is four decades older than an average Eagle Scout.

The 61-year-old, who earned the high rank in January, is among the roughly 100,000 special needs people who have participated in Boy Scouts of America since the organization started in 1910.

Normally scouts earn their Eagle Award by age 18, but people with special needs can work on the rank requirements as adults.

Cuthbertson is among the 20 or so Genesee County scouts with special needs in Troops 33 and 11, reported.

But the tradition is in jeopardy. As the old scout leaders die off, not enough volunteers are stepping up to take their place.

“It’s important to keep it going,” said Troop 117 Scoutmaster Gene Richards. “If it wasn’t for scouts some of these guys wouldn’t be coming out of their homes. This way, we know they’re getting out for an hour at least once a week.”

Cuthbertson lives in an assisted living home he shares with a family and four other special needs adults. He’s lived in the home for more than 40 years and routinely waits at the front door for rides to take him to his daily activities.

He goes to church, he goes to work, he spends time with his friends and, of course, he goes to his weekly troop meetings.

The Eagle Scout has spent Sunday mornings attending the Community Church of God in Clio for the past 35 years. With his red Bible closed and his eyes shut tightly, Cuthbertson can recite each prayer word-for-word.

Cuthbertson dedicates each Monday and Thursday morning working at a McDonalds in Clio. He started out breaking down cardboard boxes there 27 years ago and now cleans the store, which allows him to interact with customers.

Every weekday, Cuthbertson spends several hours at the Thetford Senior Center where he catches up with longtime friends and spends time doing word search puzzles. Word searches are a passion. The shelves in his room are stacked with books of completed puzzles.

Cutherbertson is also a fan of game shows like Wheel of Fortune, and can spend anywhere from four to six hours watching them.

Cutherberson’s troop meets every Tuesday night. He’s been working on his coin collecting merit badge at the meetings for about a year. He’s been involved with scouts for decades.

Like many of the other men in his group, Cuthbertson began scouting because it gave him something to look forward to each week.

Dylan Payne, a 19-year-old scout in Troop 117, said knowing there is a meeting every week keeps him distracted when things at home are troubling.

“I like hanging out with my friends,” Payne said.

About 90 percent of the scouts in Troops 33 and 117 live at assisted living homes. Troop treasurer and Gene’s father, Jim Richards, said sometimes scouting is the only time the men can meet up and hang out.

“They have no control over that,” said Jim Richards. “They can’t just get up and go where they want like we can. When we have an activity, they know they’re going to be able to go there and do something.”

Troop 33 was started by Jim’s father, Elmer Richards, in 1961 to include young men with special needs with the Boy Scouts of America. Four years later, the organization declared that Boy Scouts with special needs were allowed to work toward their Eagle rank past the age of 18.

Leading a special needs group of scouts requires more adult volunteers than normal scouting would require, Jim Richards explained.

Currently, there are seven adult volunteers who lead groups of scouts toward earning their merit badges. Scoutmasters say it would be ideal if there were more volunteers at scout meetings so the troops can break up based on their skill level.

Many of the volunteers have been working with Troops 33 and 117 for decades and as the scouts age so do those helping them. Gene Richards said he’s concerned the livelihood of the troops is being threatened as more volunteers step down because of health issues or age.

A.J. Smith, the 76-year-old former scoutmaster for Troop 33, stepped down in December after being diagnosed with cancer. Smith led the troop for 15 years but his health won’t allow him to participate in events like camping anymore.

“Scouts help young men, especially special needs men, think better of themselves,” Smith said. “Back in the day we used to have a lot of help, now we don’t.”

The troops’ biggest obstacle right now is not having enough adult volunteers during events like Summer Camp or even the weekly meetings.

“That is our deficit more than anything else,” Jim said.

The lack of volunteers has prevented the scouts from partaking in their favorite event, the annual Summer Camp Out, which takes place every summer. Scouts can fish, build fires, go hiking and camp out in tents with other special needs troops.

David Shultz, a 63-year-old Boy Scout in Troop 117, spent his first night in a tent after joining. He began scouting five years ago to be more independent and contribute to his community.

“It’s a good program that builds good principles,” he said. “I like just being able to find my way around, take hikes and being with the other Boy Scouts.”

Boy Scouts requires two scoutmasters to be present during any activity. With special needs scouts, that number is doubled. Getting that many volunteers has been difficult.

“That’s the reason we haven’t been able to go to summer camp. That’s it in a nutshell,” Jim Richards said. “But even if we just had (a few) more volunteers at each meeting, we’d be good. That’s all it would really take.”

Scoutmasters are looking for help with weekend events like basketball games, swimming and holiday parties like the Harvest Ball. But without enough volunteers, Gene Richards said he’s not sure what the future holds for the troop his family’s led for three generations.

“I’m always looking for more adults to get involved, take over, like I said we’re not getting young,” he said. “If we don’t get anymore (leaders) after me, I don’t know what we’ll do.”