Outreach Red Bank program offers un­derstanding

Hopes to engage area teens in Bible study

By sandi carpello
Staff Writer

Outreach Red Bank program
offers un­derstanding
By sandi carpello
Staff Writer

For Joe Ratoni, it is hard to stay out of trouble. Ratoni (not his real name), a 17-year-old who dropped out of Red Bank Regional High School last year because "7 a.m. was way too early to get out of bed," has found himself with a lot more free time than he can handle.

Jobless, broke and under the scrutiny of Red Bank’s police department, he spends his summer days hanging out in Marine Park.

Ratoni is only one of many pierced and tattooed teenagers called "parkies" by Red Bank residents.

Considered by some area residents to be chronic ne’er-do-wells, the teens are suspected to be drug abusers and vandals. But some parkies define themselves as misunderstood teenagers who hang out in Marine Park from roughly 2 p.m. to midnight, smoking cigarettes and basically killing time.

"A lot of these kids have nowhere else to hang out," said David Hiner, 18, a self-proclaimed parkie from Long Branch. "Most of these kids are homeless, and if they’re not homeless, they just don’t want to go home because it’s a bad environment."

Lately Outreach Red Bank, a nonprofit Christian organization, has been offering these teens some direction.

Outreach Red Bank was established earlier this year by a group of community members concerned that Red Bank youth had lost their faith in Christianity. Aiming to strengthen the ties between area teens and religion, the organization’s 18-member board of trustees hired Christian Andrews, a 31-year-old ordained minister from Atlantic Highlands, to conduct teen-oriented Bible studies.

With no attachment to a specific church, Outreach Red Bank’s roughly 40 members have made Marine Park their place of worship, conducting weekly Bible studies just feet from the parkies’ favorite picnic table.

"We’ve been inviting the parkies to hang out with us," said Andrews, who completed a six-year ministry course at the Princeton Theological Seminary last year. "On Thursdays we invite them to play Frisbee with us in Fair Haven Fields. On Mondays, we drive them to the Middletown skate park. We bring them pizza and take them for ice cream, and on Sunday nights, we invite them to our Christian Bible study group."

The main objective is to start a positive relationship with the teens, Andrews said.

"For example, some of the parkies are into drugs and I think that’s bad for them. I don’t make it my goal to get them out of drugs — my goal is to develop a [dialogue] with them."

As the parkies sat at a picnic table smoking cigarettes on the afternoon of Aug. 21, Andrews, who looks more like a surfer than a Presbyterian minister, talked to the teens about their latest skateboarding stunts and their new tattoos. With no mention of the New Testament or Christianity, Andrews packed six or seven teens into his green SUV and drove them to the weekly Frisbee game.

Although the Frisbee outings have had a higher parkie attendance than the weekly Bible study classes, some parkies have begun to embrace religion.

"A few voluntarily joined Outreach Red Bank on a Christian retreat week­end in upstate New York, and several have opted to at­tend our Bible studies," Andrews said.

Matt DeCaesar, Oceanport, who of­ten joins Outreach Red Bank on skate park trips, said participation in the Bible study group is strictly voluntary.

"He usually asks us to go to the Bible groups. I’ve gone. But Christian is like the coolest guy. We don’t ever have to go."

Ratoni, who often joins the Bible studies, said attendance is "never im­posed. [Andrews] is just trying to keep us out of trouble."

Although Andrews said he would be "extremely happy" if the parkies be­came more devout Christians, it is not his first priority.

As the weather gets colder, the park will no longer be a feasible place for these kids to go, Andrews said.

"The organization is currently look­ing to rent an office or a space for them to hang out," he said.

The parkies have been receptive to that idea.

"They seem to be affected by a group hoping to make a place for them," An­drews said. "A lot of people don’t give them a chance. They really are sweet kids."