Ocean City -- Vashon Bishop and more than a dozen of his friends huddled on the beach at Wicomico Street Wednesday night, warming each other against the wind and steadying those in the group who already had done a little too much partying.
"We care about each other," said Mr. Bishop, 18, fuzzily, as the others hugged more tightly and nodded their agreement. "We're all here together. We'reall brothers and sisters."
The recent graduates of the Calvert High School in Calvert tTC County are in Ocean City for the annual summer "Junebug" ritual, when teens flock to the resort town to celebrate high school graduation, the end of school and the beginning of summer.
While the Calvert County group's self-reliance is admirable, these kids have a new safety net in town this year if they get into trouble. The Parent Network, the brainchild of the community-based Ocean City Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Committee, offers a hot line, advice and referral service.
"We want to try to get to them while they have just a small problem, before it escalates," says Bonnie Gisriel of Ocean City, coordinator of the network. Mrs. Gisriel has six kids of her own, but this summer she and the network's 30 other volunteers will try to make Ocean City a safe home away from home for the thousands of young people who will come here to work, vacation or flit about town as part of the Junebug invasion.
"This town relies so heavily on the teens," she says. "You walk into any place down here, who do you see? The kids -- they're running ev
erything. We have a responsibility to keep them healthy and happy."
One way to keep them happy is to keep them entertained. A rock concert is scheduled at the Convention Center and there'll be two alcohol-free graduation bashes at a bayside crab house to give the Junebugs alternatives to keg parties and drunken cruising around town.
On Wednesday, visiting teens were gathered around the giant walking piano from the movie "Big," which was brought to the boardwalk for their amusement by the Parent Network and Super Star Studios. As a radio personality exhorted members of the class of '91 to hop aboard the piano and compete for prizes, Parent Network volunteers slipped through the crowd, handing out fliers and cards to promote its hot-line number, 723-3700, which teens can call 24 hours a day with concerns as minor as roommate problems and as major as pregnancy or alcohol abuse.
But most of the 200 or so early-season visitors who stopped by the piano party said they expect to take care of themselves.
Greg Arnold, 19 and a recent grad of Chopticon High School in St. Mary's County, said he and about eight buddies had come to the beach for a week to "drink beer and get wasted 'til you can't get up." More importantly, the buzz-cut, neon-clad young man said he came here "for the women." But he dismissed any worries about AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases, offering to prove that he had "a big, big box" of condoms back at his hotel.
Other Junebugs were planning to take fewer risks.
Charlene Owens, Susan Kelley, Kristin Stefko and Gina Wineke pulled into Ocean City Wednesday after graduating from Franklin High School in Reisterstown. The four lifelong friends said they were here to "find guys, get a tan, be free from our parents and do whatever we feel like doing." But they were optimistic that they could keep themselves and each other out of trouble.
"We really don't plan on getting into that situation," said Ms. Wineke, 18. "If one of us was about to, the other three would stop her."
For parents who don't find solace in such assurances, the Parent Network has a service to find kids and remind them to call home.
"A lot of times, not calling home is a message to their parents that they're OK," says Mrs. Gisriel. "Of course, parents don't interpret it that way."
Losing contact with home is more of a problem for youths who come to live in Ocean City for the summer than for the transient Junebugs. Young, seasonal residents often move from job to job and change housing as roommate relationships are tested and discarded.
The network's intervention with missing kids is a plus with the Ocean City Police Department. "That's probably one of the greatest benefits the Parent Network can be to the Police Department," says Ocean City Police Chief David Massey, whose department gets dozens of calls every summer from parents who can't reach their children in Ocean City.
"We can refer parents to the Parent Network, and have them go out and check on the welfare of the kids instead of having the police do it," Chief Massey says. "Getting a knock on the door from a non-police person is probably a little less traumatic to the child, particularly if he or she has just neglected to keep in touch with the folks back home."
Once a missing teen is located, the network will give the foundling a chance to make a toll-free call back home and a pep talk about the services the town offers.
"This county is really rich in resources, but if kids don't know about it, it's no good," says Mrs. Gisriel, who expects the Parent Network to answer calls for housing, money worries, affordable health care, entertainment, and even a few bouts of homesickness this summer.
"I want the kids to know that, though they left their family and friends at home, they have people here who really care about them," she says. "They have people here who want to help them keep happy and healthy."