Two surfer girls from the Merrimack Valley are putting smiles on the faces of special needs students this summer by helping them catch a wave at the beach.
Lindsey Mercer and Taylor Thomas — college-bound, 18-year-old graduates from Central Catholic High School in Lawrence — have launched Surfing With Smiles, which has its final session of the season Thursday at Hampton Beach.
"It's the most rewarding thing I've done in my life," said Thomas, a Windham resident, who will attend Keene State College. "Seeing parents and their kids so happy is just so amazing."
"At our first event, parents were crying on the beach they were so happy," said Mercer, who is headed for the University of New England in Maine. "This is very special for all of us."
A love for surfing led Mercer and Thomas to found the program, now in its second year. It has attracted dozens of participants from throughout the Merrimack Valley.
"We accommodate all disabilities," Mercer said. "Our instructors literally sit on the board with them."
Mercer and Thomas were motivated by a desire to help people learn to surf. Mercer's father runs a transportation company, where she had the opportunity to meet special needs students. They combined the two concepts and the idea really jelled after they saw a similar program for autistic youths in Maine.
"I've always felt they deserve all the chances we have," Mercer said.
They went to a New Hampshire surfing store, Cinnamon Rainbows, that embraced the program. They loaned the program boards and instructors lined up to volunteer.
"They helped us so much," Mercer said.
The gratitude goes both ways.
"They're thanking us, but we're thanking them right back," said Cinnamon Rainbows owner David Cropper, who describers Mercer and Thomas as great kids.
His colleague, Ross Kunkel of Plum Island, heard the girls' pitch, then brought their proposal to Cropper, who didn't need much convincing. The shop has participated in a "Wounded Warriors" surfing program and had an autistic student for lessons.
"We knew we could do this," Cropper said. "This is something we wanted to be part of."
Credit the looks on the faces of students and their families.
"It's pretty special, definitely moving," Cropper said. "Surfing is surfing, no matter your age ability or disability."
Kunkel helps coordinate logistics and manpower with Mercer and Thomas. But they do the ground work, which includes finding students, Cropper said.
"We traveled to schools," Thomas said. "We put up signs everywhere."
Perrin Troiano, 16, of Andover is one of the students.
"They do a great job with the kids," said Perrin's father, Bob Troiano. "I think Perrin's experience has been great. He was a little reluctant at first. But his involvement is good from a social standpoint and even the physical aspects of it are good."
Mercer, Thomas and their volunteers make it easy.
"It's a lot of fun. There's no pressure. Everyone is nice as can be and supportive," Troiano said. "A lot of people are involved. The people from the surfing shop are really great. They probably have as much fun as the kids."
Mercer and Thomas sure do.
"It's been incredible," Mercer said. "I've made relationships with those kids and it's been amazing. They come back every time."
The experience is beyond rewarding for Thomas.
"I feel like it's the best thing in my life after every 'Surfing With Smiles' class," Thomas said.
The young women plan to continue the program.
"There are endless thank-yous at the end of every event," Mercer said. "I hope I can do this until I can't do it anymore."
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