On the third Tuesday of June, July, and August, a team of volunteers with Special Surfers – including a group from the CLC YMCA in Damariscotta – brings hundreds of children and adults with special needs to Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunk to surf.
The experience, Special Surfers founder Nanci Boutet says, is transformative. Experienced surfers and other volunteers, in the water and on the beach, ensure every participant gets the chance to ride a wave.
On Tuesday, Aug. 20, Special Surfers will return to Gooch’s Beach for its final event of the summer. Boutet welcomes all children and adults with special needs, physical, mental, or emotional, as well as volunteers.
Karen-Ann Hagar, community outreach program coordinator at the Central Lincoln County YMCA in Damariscotta, will return to the event for the fourth time with several participants and volunteers from Lincoln County.
The bus will depart from the CLC YMCA at 1 p.m. and return by 9:30 pm. Hagar invites anyone who would like to participate or volunteer to contact her at email@example.com.
“It will be a day that you never forget,” Hagar said. “Imagine seeing people in wheelchairs, or people who hardly ever speak, throw their arms up in the air on a surfboard.”
Boutet started Special Surfers in 2003, when she owned a surf shop in Kennebunk and took several children with special needs out on the water. She sold the surf shop in 2014, as participation increased and Special Surfers evolved into a once-a-month summer event with hundreds of participants.
Boutet single-handedly coordinates Special Surfers from her home in Kennebunk. She provides all the equipment, from wetsuits to boards. Before each event, she recruits friends and neighbors to assist in the water and on land with registration, trucks and trailers, setup and cleanup.
“From the second the bus arrives at the beach, our volunteers do everything to make sure our participants are safe and finding joy in the water,” she said. “When they come to the beach for an evening of fun, it’s all about them.”
The wave captain, a volunteer with years of surfing experience, will be on the water, giving participants the necessary support to catch a wave. The surfer’s assistant will be closer to shore, helping participants get on and off their boards. Dry volunteers arrive early to help with setup, registration, and directing traffic, while the clean team stays until dark to sort boards and rinse wetsuits.
“Being there is the highlight of my career,” Hagar said.
As the YMCA’s community outreach program coordinator, Hagar connects people and families in Lincoln County with the broader community by cultivating relationships with organizations, individuals, and businesses.
She works closely with young adults in Lincoln County, organizing the Lincoln County Mentor Network, which recruits and places mentors in the community.
When Hagar heard about Special Surfers through her fiance, Billy Smith, they decided it would be an excellent organization for youth and adults in Lincoln County to get involved with.
The group from the CLC YMCA participated for the first time in August 2018, returned in June and July of this year, and will be back again later this month.
“The program shows the public the joy that a community can bring to the lives of individuals with special needs,” Boutet said. “Every event ends up being a blast.”
For 16 years, Special Surfers has offered children and adults one of the most thought-provoking and physically stimulating experiences of a lifetime. Special Surfers has received the Point of Light Award. The late Barbara Bush nominated the program for the award, given by the organization founded by her husband, President George H.W. Bush.
Hagar said everyone has something to learn from children and adults with special needs.
“These people with special needs have a lot more going on inside than you assume,” she said. “You may think that they don’t have anything to offer society, but they’ll teach you the best things in life that you’ll ever learn.”