Despite fog and rain, around 60 participants showed up to Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunk on Tuesday to hit the waves for the first Special Surfer event of the summer.

The program – which usually runs on the third Tuesday of June, July and August – was canceled last year because of the pandemic, but is back in full force this summer.

Executive Director Nanci Boutet started the nonprofit in 2003, and since then, Special Surfer has helped hundreds of kids with physical and developmental disabilities – as well as a handful of adults who are, as Boutet says, “young at heart” – learn to surf with the help of trained volunteers.

The volunteers include both expert surfers and non-surfers, and they do everything from guiding surfboards to reassuring anxious participants. Many of the volunteers are people staying in the area for the summer or who have accidentally stumbled across the group on Gooch’s Beach, according to volunteer coordinator Pam Emerson.

Paxton Cunha, 10, of Scarborough rides a wave into the beach. After being canceled last summer because of the pandemic, the Special Surfers program, which introduces surfing to people with physical and mental disabilities, held its first event of the summer at Kennebunk Beach on Tuesday evening. Derek Davis Buy this Photo

Each participant is paired with a minimum of two volunteers, depending on their specific needs. And while the volunteers change over the course of the summer and year to year, many surfers have their favorites.

Scotty Wentzel of North Yarmouth has been surfing with Special Surfer for 10 years. Scotty is nonverbal, but indicates his preference for his favorite surf instructor – who is bald – by touching the top of his own head.

Scotty’s father, Scott Wentzel, said the volunteers have been very helpful getting Scotty comfortable in the water.

“(Scotty) starts laying down, and he’s got a volunteer on the back of the board with him, typically,” Wentzel said. “The first couple of times he was just feeling it out – he drank a lot of salt water.”

Esmia Ricker, 9, who has been surfing for three years, climbed onto her board with help and encouraging words from two volunteers in wetsuits.

Jared Krause, 23, of Gray flashes signs to his mom on the beach while riding a wave. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“She loves it,” said Esmia’s grandmother, Kristina Marcotte of Saco. “She’s excited, but nervous at the same time.”

Another parent, Judy Shields of Portland, watched her two sons, Caleb, 10, and Gabriel, 12, from the beach. She cheered when Caleb caught a wave and encouraged Gabriel, who had his arms resting on the side of his board and was a little more hesitant.

“He loves the water, but he’s unsure of getting on the board and surfing,” Shields said. “He likes to do his own thing. For him it’s just a chance to go swimming.”

Shields said she and the boys were both thrilled to be back after the one-year hiatus.

“(Caleb and Gabriel) would go in January and February if they had it,” Shields said. “It’s nice to have opportunities like this available for the kids.”

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