Story & Photography Provided by J. Scott MacGregor
It didn’t take then 14-year old A.J. Valerio long to make a connection with the guy sitting next to him at the Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend 2017. A Boy Scout working toward his Eagle rank — Scouting’s highest honor — Valerio had long dreamed of a career in the military, and his suitemate that day enthralled him with stories of his time as a Naval intelligence officer on overseas assignments. For Valerio, the race took second stage.
So did the fact that the guy also happened to be the Governor of Indiana, Eric Holcomb.
“A.J. was more impressed with the Governor’s Navy experience than being the Governor,” says his father, Jody. “They talked about A.J.’s drive to earn his Eagle, and the Governor was so impressed he said he’d be honored to hold A.J.’s Eagle Court of Honor at the Governor’s Mansion.”
Now 17 and a junior at Fishers High School, Valerio completed his Eagle requirements in January 2019 and was formally awarded the rank on June 2 in a ceremony at the Indiana Governor’s Mansion — which doesn’t host a Court of Honor often.
Eagle Scout is a rare honor to achieve, with less than 7% of all boys who join Scouting earning the rank. Valerio, who has a cognitive learning disability, is even rarer. The number of Scouts with special needs who achieve Eagle is so small, formal statistics aren’t kept.
“A.J. is an exemplary Hoosier with a great willingness to serve his neighbors,” Governor Holcomb says. “Indiana is stronger because of scouts like A.J. — who is already a leader in his community and will continue to help take our state to the next level.”
“AJ Valerio is exemplary in so many ways,” Indiana State Senator John Ruckelshaus adds. “As an Eagle Scout leader in his troop, as an active participant in his community helping others, as a role model to others at school with his hard work and strong study habits. AJ is why American’s future is so bright.”
Valerio first joined Scouting as a first-grader, invited to a Cub Scout meeting by neighborhood friends. Crossing over into Boy Scouts as an 11-year old, he quickly developed a love for camping and meeting new people at Scout camporees and summer camp. He also participates in an Explorer unit through Chip Ganassi Racing in Indianapolis, learning how to work on race cars as part of his Scouting experience.
“Meeting new friends makes it even more fun,” Valerio says. “I like camping. I like being outside and doing merit badges, fishing, rifle sports, archery, and I like selling popcorn.”
Progressing through the Scout ranks as a part of Troop 303 in Fishers, Valerio also enjoyed watching older Scouts in the troop earn Eagle and began to understand he could do it too if he worked hard enough. He received encouragement from Chris Wilson, an Eagle Scout who serves as a care provider and mentor for young adults with special needs, including A.J.
“I don’t think he got his Eagle despite his disability, or because of it. He got this far because he’s a good Scout,” Wilson says. “He struggles with some things, but he’s not afraid to ask questions. He’s earned his Eagle faster than I did. He definitely worked hard.”
For his Eagle project — a Scout-led community service effort requiring significant planning and execution — Valerio tore down a shed at Ritchey Woods Nature Preserve that had been destroyed by weather and animals, then rebuilt it with a shelter and a bench that allows visitors to relax and enjoy nature.
“The City of Fishers is proud of A.J. Valerio, who has earned the achievement of Eagle Scout rank,” says Fishers Mayor Scott Fadness. “His dedication to community and service was evident in the work he did at Ritchey Woods Nature Preserve that will have a lasting impact for all who visit. We congratulate AJ, and we know his journey is just beginning.”
Valerio is aware of the rarity of his accomplishment but downplays the impact of achieving Eagle with a disability.
“I don’t think of myself as having special needs,” he says. “But a lot of Scouts never make it to Eagle. I’m proud I earned it.”