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.