CONCORD -- After learning to tie timber hitch knots, teens in Boy Scout Troop 1994 linked themselves together with ropes, creating a giant web that moved as one, carefully maneuvering under another rope strung between two flagpoles. Emerging victorious on the other side, they cheered for one another and proudly looked up to Scoutmaster David Rowntree and his wife, Sheila -- who is an assistant scoutmaster -- to bask in their warm congratulations.
In folksy Texas twangs, the Rowntrees warned the boys that the activity may be timed, so they might have to speed up a bit. Undaunted, the teens -- who all have special needs -- chattered happily about the adventures they would share.
"When they come in here, they're not competing with the A+ student," David Rowntree said. "They are competing with their peers."
For the past 19 years the Rowntrees have led a Scout troop for students with a variety of disabilities that include autism, scoliosis and other developmental or physical challenges. The couple was among 22 award-winners -- including teachers, administrators, Lions Club members and others -- recognized by the Mt. Diablo school district with a You Make a Difference Award for their work to better the lives of special-education students.
The troop is perfecting outdoor camping skills for an upcoming camporee, where they will compete against other Scout troops in challenges that test how well they work as a team. As the boys learn new skills and perfect their teamwork, their confidence grows.
Lanette Atwood nominated the Rowntrees for the award because of the changes she has seen in her 13-year-old son Nate since he joined the troop a couple of years ago.
"The Rowntrees are saints with a sense of humor," she said. "It's hard when your boy doesn't fit in -- and they're always trying to fit in. They accept them here for who they are. Nate has a skill set now that I don't think he would have" otherwise.
Nate advanced to the rank of "first class" after a parent board review Thursday at El Dorado Middle School. He has become so comfortable on camping trips that he is willing to go to summer camp for five days without his parents, Atwood said.
"That's just amazing," she said.
"Independence -- that's what they learn."
The Rowntrees have been leading troops for more than 30 years, since their son was a Cub Scout. The couple started the special troop in 1993 after their son, who was not a special-needs student, became an Eagle Scout and they realized there were some boys who were unable to participate in scouting because of their disabilities.
Since then, a dozen members have become Eagle Scouts, including Matthew Bassett and Roberto Larios, who volunteer as assistant scoutmasters.
"This troop works because of them," said Carol Bassett, Matthew's mother. "They are the center that keeps it going."
With kindness, patience and lighthearted camaraderie, the Rowntrees encourage the boys to mingle with a purpose, focused on activities that all Boy Scouts do.
They break their troop of 10 boys into smaller groups to work on skills at the same level, before moving on to another task.
The boys also participate in activities such as Santa for Seniors, Christmas caroling and Scouting for Food.
"A lot of them have trouble socially," Sheila Rowntree said. "Sometimes, they get pushed out of other troops."
At ages 70 and 66 respectively, David and Sheila Rowntree say they would like to train a new leader to keep the troop going after they retire, and hope an interested parent will step forward.
"We realize this troop provides a service to these kids, or we wouldn't be doing it," Sheila Rowntree said. "If we stopped, I'd hate to see the troop die."
The Rowntrees will keep it going as long as they can to make sure that doesn't happen.
"The main help is my wife," David Rowntree said, smiling lovingly at Sheila after 47 years of marriage. "If she wasn't here, I probably wouldn't be doing it."
The Mt. Diablo school district recently honored the following staff and community members for their positive impacts on the lives of special-education students:
Laurie Abbey: speech and language pathologist
Lauralyn Amundson: special education teacher
Johnny Applegate: special education teacher (posthumous award)
Marji Calbeck: principal
Roseann Colvig: general education teacher
Sandy Conley: special education full inclusion facilitator
Rosa Cornejo: special education assistant
Rene and Maggie DeLuna: Lions Club International District 4-C3 for Special Kids Day event
Sally Gibbs: special education teacher
Austin Green: student
Kirsten O'Leary: general education teacher
Shani O'Neal: school psychologist
Mickey Pawar: Pawar Transportation provider
David and Sheila Rowntree: Boy Scout troop leaders
Ken Ruiz: school custodian
Crystal Stull: resource teacher
Ellen Terminello: special education teacher
Jenny Tran: special education teacher
Mary-Ann Tucker: retired special education administrator
Nancy Villa: principal
Lori Williams: speech and language pathologist
Sarah Young: special education teacher
For details and video clips of the awards ceremony, read the On Assignment blog at www.ibabuzz.com/onassignment.