KENNEBUNK – Hundreds of people gathered Tuesday evening on Kennebunk’s Gooch’s Beach to surf in the 86-degree weather for Special Surfers’ first event of the summer.

Special Surfers, an organization that hosts three annual events for children with disabilities to try or practice the sport, has been coming out to this beach for more than 20 years.

Carrie Woodcock was there for the first time with her 17-year-old daughter, Sami, who has Down syndrome. She said Sami hesitated to attend the event in the past because she was unsure of her swimming abilities, but decided this year she would try it.

“She’s been taking swimming lessons for a couple of years now, and this is the first summer where I was like, ‘I think you’re confident enough now to try Special Surfers,’ so we signed up to give it a go,” Woodcock said before the event. “She’s still got nerves, but we always have nerves when we try something new. I think when she gets out there and has success, it’ll be a really great experience for her.”

Lexie Eldridge, left, looks up to Cynthia Verrill as she carries her out through the waves during the first Special Surfers session of the summer at Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunk on Tuesday. Eldridge and Verrill have been friends since meeting in elementary school and have surfed together at the Special Surfers events for the past seven years. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Founded in 2003, Special Surfers has grown in scope and size over the last two decades, according to event organizer Heather Ross. With more volunteers and donations, she said, the nonprofit now invites people with a broader range of disabilities to participate.

“Special Surfers started as something for children with physical or emotional disabilities, but it’s grown into something much more available. We don’t discriminate – there’s no ageism, there are no physical limitations that we can or cannot appreciate here. If someone says, ‘My son has bad ADD or they get anxious around crowds, but they want to try this,’ we let them try it,” said Ross.

Advertisement

The number of participants has grown, too, according to founder and Executive Director Nanci Boutet.

The first year, “we took three kids out and they had a blast. And the next year we took 23 kids out. And it kept growing and growing – like 50 kids, 90 kids. And now I think it’s 212, with probably over 300 volunteers,” Boutet said.

Sophia Conners, 7, rides a wave to shore with help from volunteers Colleen Clark, left, and Rich Laracy. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Boutet said she founded Special Surfers after a friend told her about how surfing can benefit people with disabilities.

“Surfing is good for kids with disabilities … because it demands all of their focus. Their attention can’t stray,” Boutet said. “So they get out here and just shine.”

Anna Tague-Lacrone, a rising super-senior at Deering High School with Down syndrome, has been coming to surf for years. Anna’s mom, Amy Tague, noted the rarity of finding places like Special Surfers where having a disability is the norm.

“I almost have felt choked up at times because there’s not a lot of spaces like this where Anna can just show up and people will accommodate the space,” Tague said. “In a lot of spaces we have to work hard to figure out how to kind of tweak the environment.”

Advertisement

Bryce Randall slaps the hands of volunteers as he surfs a wave into shore at Gooch’s Beach. Randall participates in what is known as Special Ops surfing, where the surfer is seated in a chair and lines of volunteers guide the board as it rides the wave. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

As surfers got ready to enter the 2-foot high waves around 6 p.m., Boutet explained what goes into helping each participant. 

“The wave captain, someone who knows how to surf or can time the wave, comes out, takes the kid with them, and watches for a wave. When a wave comes, they push the kid into the wave. … The kid rides a wave all the way to shore,” Boutet said. “The surf assistant tries to regulate the traffic … Then they help (the kid) get back out to the wave captain.”

Kim Brooks said her daughter, Paige, who is 13 and has been attending Special Surfers since she was about 4, has come to enjoy surfing more with each year.

“When we first started out, Paige didn’t love it. She would try it one or two times and be all done,” Brooks said. “But now she thoroughly enjoys it. Usually, once we get out there, we don’t come in for a while.”

Woodcock, Sami’s mom, said events like Special Surfers have the ability to challenge people’s notions of what people with disabilities can do.

“Being out here … really helps to push an inclusion message forward, not only in our schools but in society and our community as a whole,” Woodcock said.

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.