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  • Jarod Contreras

PTC's Zia Experience create opportunities for Scouts with disabilities

August 8, 2022 — The opportunity for growth held in the lands of Philmont should be available to everyone. The Philmont Training Center’s Zia Experience provides these wilderness adventures to Scouts who have specific functional needs.

The PTC created personalized experiences to accommodate Scouts with a wide range of function and ability levels in physical, intellectual, emotional and/or hidden disabilities.

Zia Experience participant Nicholas practices the proper position for holding a rifle with one of his troop’s aids at the PTC Shooting Sports Range on July 26, 2022, at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M. Photo by Emily Schmidt.

Leading up to the experience, the PTC met virtually with applying families to determine how best to provide for their Scouts. This included conversations about what type of experience the Scout wanted to have. Everything from backcountry treks to basecamp experiences were designed for the Scouts, catering to their specific needs.

“This unique adventure gives Scouts the opportunity to experience the magic of Philmont in a way where their skills can best be applied,” said Danny Tucker, Philmont Training Center Director. “The motto for Philmont is ‘Change Lives’, and through the Zia Experience, we believe we can do that for these youth and their families.”

The experience provided Scouts and their families the ability to learn from Philmont’s wilderness and program in a way many may not have been able to before.

The PTC utilized staff and volunteers trained in supporting special needs and adaptive equipment to facilitate the personalized experiences. Scouts participated in activities such as hiking, the climbing tower, shooting sports and horseback riding.

Last year was the first year Philmont held the Zia Experience, with five Scouts and their families attending. Since then, the idea has spread throughout the Boy Scouts of America. This past January, a similar experience called the Keys Experience started at Florida Sea Base.

This year’s Zia Experience participants consisted of 11 members of Troop 263, a special-needs-only troop from Dallas, Texas. The troop does not have an age limit, so their Scouts range in age from 14 to 42. In the 12 years the troop has been around, six of its Scouts achieved the rank of Eagle Scout.

Zia Experience participant Walter Kendrick King takes a breath as he approaches the top of the rock wall at the PTC COPE course near Lovers Leap turnaround on July 28, 2022, at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M. Photo by Andreanna Haritopoulos.

Janet Kelly, the special needs and disabilities awareness chair at the Sam Houston Area Council and one of the faculty members who helped facilitate the experience, noted how special the Zia Experience was.

“It just warms your heart and makes it full,” Kelly said.

The PTC challenged the participants throughout their stay at the Ranch. Their hike to the T-Rex track near Indian Writings was a memorable moment for many of them.

The out-and-back hike totaled two miles, and the troop agreed it was a big accomplishment. When coupled with the rainstorm they slogged through for much of the hike, the troop said they became a real Philmont crew that day.

“You know what they say,” participant Manuel Castellanos said. “It’s not a Philmont experience without pouring rain.”

Castellanos said one of the most important lessons of the Zia Experience for him was to “just keep pushing forward.” He said with that perspective, the rain wasn’t so bad.

Zia Experience participants and PTC conference members hike along the path to Stockade to make banana boats on July 29, 2022, at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M. The short hike with a view of the Tooth of Time was enjoyed by all involved. Photo by Andreanna Haritopoulos.

Ben Burns, Scoutmaster for Troop 263, said the best thing that ever happened to him was becoming Scoutmaster. As he toured Rayado with the troop, he was quick to laugh and was always smiling. It seemed he was especially enjoying the Zia Experience because he was there with his son, Tim Burns. As they walked through Rayado, Tim Burns described to the group some of his favorite things: the video games “Doom” and “Mario Kart” and the Ninja Turtle Donatello.

As Tim Burns walked ahead, Ben Burns helped the group understand what Tim Burns was saying and described how the Zia Experience opened the Scouts up to new adventures.

“I don’t think most of our Scouts would be able to do a trek, but I wanted them to come to Philmont and have a good experience,” Ben Burns said.

Ben Burns explained that Philmont represents a “pinnacle for Scouting.” The Scouts participated in that pinnacle, reinforcing that they can do what every other Scout can, just differently.

Zia Experience participant Wyatt talks and laughs with friends while sitting around an outdoor cooking setup waiting for his banana boat to cook at Stockade on July 29, 2022, at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M. Participants chose between sweet toppings for their roasted banana treats before learning how to properly set up a camping stove used by crews on their treks. Photo by Andreanna Haritopoulos.

One Zia Experience participant, Walter Kendrick King, described how wonderful it was to simply be at Philmont. He said he could live out here and loves it. He said one of his favorite parts of his time at Philmont was touring the Villa Philmonte because he just loves colors.

“This is a very artistic place,” King said.

Throughout the Zia Experience, both the participants and staff became family to King, he said. King said that he heard stories from staff members returning to work at Philmont after their own participant experience. The stories inspired him to say that what he’ll think about when he returns home is, “when can I do it again?”

King said Philmont was especially memorable because of the small moments, the moments where he was immersed in the beauty of Philmont. Like on the T-Rex hike, where it wasn’t the easiest task, but it was important to him, nonetheless.

“The thing I’ve learned here is to enjoy, to be patient and watch,” King said.

King doesn’t know when he will return, but he’ll be thinking of the sage-covered hills and starlit skies of New Mexico for a long time.

“I think this is one of the highlights of my youth,” King said.

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