KENNEBUNK — Haley Adams galloped through knee-deep waves off Gooch’s Beach on Tuesday evening and eagerly climbed onto a surfboard steadied by two volunteers in wet suits.

As the 7-year-old bravely stood and rode the board to shore, her grinning face matched the cheery Hello Kitty character on the front of her hot pink swimsuit. Haley’s parents, Scott and Kris Adams of Standish, watched with pride from the beach.

“She wouldn’t have done it with us,” Kris Adams said. “The volunteers know what they’re doing.”

Haley was one of about 90 children who participated in Special Surfers Night, a free program offered on the third Tuesday of June, July and August by the Aquaholics Surf Shop at 166 Port Road.

The program is designed for children who have autism, Asperger’s syndrome and other developmental challenges, but the criteria for participation are minimal and the increasingly popular program draws families from across Maine and New Hampshire.

“If you feel like you belong here, you belong here,” said Aquaholics owner Nanci Boutet during a break from overseeing the hubbub along the shore.

Boutet started Special Surfers Night seven years ago at the urging of her friend Maureen Dow, a behavioral specialist who works with the Autism Society of Maine. Similar special-needs surfing programs have grown popular worldwide in recent years, from California to Brazil to Spain.

“I opened the shop 10 years ago and I wanted to do something like this as outreach,” said Boutet, 55, who lives in Saco and learned to surf when she spent two years in Los Angeles as a teenager.

“I like to share the stoke, the high, of surfing,” she said. “If I had the resources, I’d do this every week, it’s so much fun. I’ll be high until we do this again in August.”

Dow, who lives in Kennebunk, is trained in adaptive physical education and understands the importance of exercise, outdoor activity and group interaction for all children, including those with special needs.

“For the kids, it’s about feeling joy and finding a place where they belong and having the confidence to succeed,” Dow said. “For the parents, it’s about finding joy and strength in their children and in themselves.”

About 70 volunteers helped the children surf on Tuesday. Before the program started at 5:30 p.m., Dow and Boutet coached them on how to keep the kids safe, communicate with them according to their abilities and be sensitive to their individual needs.

Lynne Abelson, 52, and her daughter, Samantha, 13, volunteered for the first time. They live near the surf shop and decided it was time to join the fun.

A teacher by training, Lynne Abelson surfed with E.J. Merrifield, a 9-year-old boy from Belfast who has nonverbal autism and other developmental disabilities.

Abelson ran through the waves, guiding E.J. as he rode a board on his belly.

“It was incredible,” Abelson said. “We’ll definitely volunteer again.”

Enid Arvelo of South Portland watched from the beach as her 8-year-old son, Jean-Paul, who has Asperger’s syndrome, stood on a board and rode it to shore, his arms raised in triumph. Several people cheered. He smiled and waved and headed back out for another run.

“He was diagnosed when he was 18 months old,” Arvelo said, her voice choked with emotion. “At the time, we didn’t know if he would ever talk. So, to see him surf today, it’s amazing.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]