The sun was dipping low when a herd of 12-year-olds wearing neon bathing suits darted across the nearly empty parking lot, heading into the waves of Sand Key Park.
They played in the surf until drawn back by the warming-up drum beats and guitar riffs from the four-member Next Life band in pavilion No. 2. Wet, sandy and laughing, they wandered to the shady, open-air structure and sat at picnic tables.
This wasn't just another day at the beach for these kids. They were here to learn about God _ the creator of the sun, sand, surf and Sand Key itself.
As they toweled off wet hair and picked up Bibles, Tom Dollenmayer, operations manager for WBVM-FM 90.5 radio station, welcomed them to Bible on the Beach.
Bible on the Beach is a summertime praise and worship youth outreach designed to challenge them to grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ.
"They get into it," said Richard Hill, a volunteer who drove a dozen teenagers here from St. Cecelia's Church in Clearwater. "It's kind of reminiscent of Baptists."
The program is organized by the youth ministry of the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg but is nondenominational. It draws Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and Pentecostal youth groups.
It was started three years ago in Treasure Island by St. John's member Steve Dollenmayer, Tom's brother, who describes himself as an accountant at Honeywell by day and a Bible teacher by night.
"The ultimate goal is to teach the youth God's word and provide a positive environment for them for the summer," Steve Dollenmayer said.
There were some changes to the event this year. Spirit FM, which broadcasts across central Florida, became involved and it was moved to the more centrally located Sand Key Park.
Bible on the Beach meetings are each Wednesday evening from June 12 through July 31 and draw up to 200 teenagers, some from as far away as Plant City.
All summer the youths have been studying the Book of James, a "handbook for the Christian," Dollenmayer said.
"Things like this keep them on the right track," said Mamselle Armbruster, promotions assistant at Spirit FM, a Catholic radio station in Tampa. "It gets the kids reading scripture and (encourages) them to discuss it with their peers. It's just a nice, healthy environment."
A Bible lesson follows a Next Life set, then kids break into groups to discuss the lesson.
"I learned how to respect people more and love God more," said Robyn Lally, 14, of Seminole, who has been coming most of the summer. "I like the music and how we read from the Bible."
Theresa Newbill, 14, said she likes the prizes and activities.
"We read (Bible) verses, and get up and dance to the songs we know (from Spirit FM)," she said. "They make songs out of hymns."
The girls' attention suddenly shifted to Tom Dollenmayer, who was standing at the mic with a special prize in his hand.
"Who likes P.O.D.?" he asked.
(P.O.D. is a Christian rock band whose music is all over airwaves)
"We do!" the teens yelled.
"These are the actual Ping Pong balls from their new video," he said, holding them in the air.
The teens gasped.
"I'm giving one to three lucky winners," he said and called out their names.
The winners held the Ping Pong balls in their hands as if they were golden eggs.
Rosemarie Maiorini, a youth minister at St. Frances Church in Spring Hill, was watching from the other side of the pavilion.
"This program enables them to focus on positive, not negative, (aspects) of the teen years," she said. "A few of the boys are forced to get in the van and come here, but they end up saying it's cool."
Hill, the church bus driver, agreed.
"It's more on the kid's level," he said. "It's upbeat, not the church organ music we're used to hearing. They've got a good thing here."
_ Eileen Schulte can be reached at 445-4153 or at schultesptimes.com.