Bonding is best way to reach teen-agers

November 13, 2001|By Susan Reimer

SOME OF US are convinced that we would be much better teen-agers if we could do it again now, with all that we have learned since. The rest of us would not return to that miserable period of our lives if we were paid by the hour.

What, then, of Barry Tolton and his wife, Krista, who appear to be permanently stuck in high school?

"We want to be adults, but the kids look at us as peers," says Barry, with a wry smile. "Some days, there is only so much you can take of being treated like a high school kid."

At 26 and 24, the University of Delaware graduates look no older than college freshmen back home for the weekend to be seen.

And the young couple can be seen everywhere: the high school football games, the high school basketball games and wrestling matches, at the mall, at the amusement park, at the local pizza parlor.

"We get asked all the time, `What are you doing here?' " says Barry. "We tell them, "We're here to see you."

The Toltons are Wilmington, Del., natives who ended up in Annapolis through luck and prayer: Their prayers and the good fortune of the parents who wanted a Young Life ministry program for their kids.

Young Life is a Christian outreach program for teens that's as old as bobby socks, and it has been successful for so long because it learned early a fundamental lesson about kids: Don't waste your breath trying to persuade them to meet you in church. Instead, go where they are.

"We call it contact work, and if you just look around, there are a million different ways to meet kids," says Barry. "One way is going to sporting events. But the goal is to just be available to the kids."

So Barry and Krista do a lot of hanging around. God is always in their back pocket, but God is not the first card they play, because you can't suggest a relationship with God unless you establish one first.

"Relationships are what matter to kids," says Barry. "Not only among themselves, but from what I see, with adults, too."

It is not simply that teens want older friends who can affirm their own emerging adulthood. And it is not only that they want mentors near them in age who can help them make the transition.

"Kids want to feel loved and accepted for who they are," says Krista.

Barry adds, "No matter what they do, or what they believe or how they behave, they want to know they are all right with us."

"When you take that kind of an interest in them," says Krista, "they open up and get real. There is a real willingness to talk about important things."

During a two-year paid internship with Young Life, Barry served as a junior varsity baseball coach and an assistant track coach at Annapolis High School.

A former high school athlete and a college physical education major, he was in his element. He didn't preach from the dugout, but the kids knew who he was and what he believed, and they knew they were welcome at prayer breakfasts or Young Life social nights.

But his internship ended, and Young Life didn't have a paid position for him. He and his wife - baby will soon make three - decided to stay in Annapolis, and Barry found a job to pay the bills while he continues to volunteer with Young Life. Somehow, it didn't seem right to be such a presence in the lives of the kids, and then disappear.

"We watch what some kids go through, watch them hurt and help them deal with it, and it is hard," says Krista, who works as an art teacher. "Sometimes, there isn't much we can do except love them."

The bedrock of Young Life is the meetings, held once or twice a month at the home of some saintly volunteer. Hundreds - that is no exaggeration - of kids can show up for food, games, ferocious socializing and, at the end, a modest dose of God's love.

Young Life learned something else early on: You only have the attention of a teen-ager for about 30 seconds, so the message is always brief.

"I try to tell them that God is not just out there somewhere. That God is a part of our lives, and he wants a personal relationship with each of us. That Jesus can make that relationship possible, and that relationship with God can fill the need inside that kids may have been filling with lots of other things," says Barry, who works for a rental equipment company.

You can quibble with his message if you want - and some adults do - but it is hard to argue with his method.

Adults are forever telling kids what to do and what not to do, but their preaching often fails because they don't know anything about the target audience or anything about what their daily lives are like.

We say, "Don't give into peer pressure," but we don't know who their friends are, let alone what that pressure is.

Barry and Krista Tolton have 8-to-5 jobs now, but they are spending their free time in the way most parents would not choose, even if their kids would let them: Hangin' out with teen-agers.

"To relate to them, you have to get to know them," says Krista. "And to know them, you have to spend a lot of time with them."

Perhaps, then, Barry and Krista Tolton are not trapped in some high school version of Groundhog Day, condemned to repeat their adolescence until they get it right.

But it looks like they are willing to hang around long enough to help some other kids get it right.

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