Like 1,029 other Minnesota Boy Scouts, Joe Keely earned the rank of Eagle Scout last year.
At the Many Point Boy Scout camp near Park Rapids, he was feted with the traditional Court of Honor ceremony: candle-lighting, reciting of the Eagle pledge and awarding of the Eagle badge.
There was chocolate cake. Joe's mom cried. All in all, a typical Eagle ceremony, except for this:
Joe Keely is autistic.
Each day, he struggles with simple social situations and feels nervous about making eye contact.
He is particular about being touched, and definitely doesn't like to be hugged. He reads on a third-grade level. His motor skills are awkward. It took him years of practice to learn to ride a bike.
"Every conversation, every interaction, he has to struggle for it," said his mother, Christine Keely, of Bloomington.
But despite all of the challenges, Joe never relented on his lifelong goal of making Eagle Scout.
To earn the swimming merit badge, he spent hours and hours at a neighborhood pool to learn to dive and retrieve an object from the bottom. His mom, a lifeguard, spent at least 20 swimming sessions with her son, teaching him to move his legs and arms in sync.
When the time came for his Eagle review, there was one accommodation: To help Joe achieve his goal, the Northern Star Council allowed his mom to stand with him during the review, where an Eagle Scout candidate is grilled on Scout protocol by a panel of adults. She was allowed to interpret the questions in a way that Joe could understand, and he was allowed to answer directly to her, instead of making eye contact with the whole review board.
At the end of the day, he completed all of the physical and mental requirements for his Eagle rank.
"I feel proud," said Joe, overlooking the extensive landscaping project he had completed at a Bloomington church for his service project.
Joe's story, and those of other Boy Scouts with special needs, is a particular note of pride for the Northern Star Council as the Boy Scouts of America celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2010. For an organization that continues to face criticism for not allowing gay troop leaders, the Boy Scouts' disability programs offer an inclusive narrative.
At a recent council dinner, a developmentally delayed adult Cub Scout assisted with the color guard, and an Eagle Scout with Asperger's syndrome gave the convocation.
Individual invitations were extended to the council's 54 special-needs troops and packs to be a part of StarCamp, the Northern Star Council's massive centennial celebration planned for May. And semi-annual training for Scout leaders always include seminars on special-needs Scouting.
"We have 25 volunteers who regularly go out to the various district meetings to provide training as well," said Sara Amberg, who was hired as the council's first full-time special need's coordinator in 2005.
What this means is that parents such as Christine Keely can "mainstream" their kids in Cub Scout packs and then switch their kids into special-needs troops as they get older, or simply keep them in traditional troops all the way through.
Because the Boys Scouts of America relaxed its membership age requirements for special-needs kids back in the 1960s, young men like Joe Keely can keep participating, even though he is now 20 years old.
"I really, really like Boy Scouts and going to camp," he said.
Alyssa Ford is a Minneapolis freelance writer.