Bradenton's Pastor Jerry works to save kids from the gang life

Pastor Jerry surrounds troubled kids with love

Bradenton HeraldApril 1, 2013 

MANATEE -- The phone attached to Pastor Jerry's hip chimes with a generic ringtone just after 9 a.m.

"I'll be there in a few minutes," he says after a brief moment. "Where do I need to pick you up?"

Jerry Parrish, teen outreach coordinator at Manatee YMCA, leaves Daughtrey Elementary School where he dropped off clothes and other items for parents to sift through.

He climbs into his SUV, turns the ignition and his Bible cassette begins to play. He drives to Pride Park, where a young guy is waiting on the sidewalk.

"He overslept," the boy says. His friend was supposed to drive him to the Manatee Y Technological High School.

"Well, let's go wake him up," Parrish replies. While the boy calls the school's office to say he's on his way, Parrish knocks on his friend's door. There's no answer. And the boy waiting in Parrish's vehicle will be counted absent if he doesn't arrive at school soon.

"I go to school every day," the boy tells Parrish. "I hate missing school."

Parrish talks to the boy about his temper that has gotten him into a few too many fights.

"Put your fists in your pockets and start talking to Jesus more," he says.

The boy talks about how he wants to get done at the Y School so he can return to his high school football team.

"I want to play football at FSU," he says, pointing to his Seminoles jacket. "If I don't get into college, I'm going to the Air Force."

Parrish drops him at the new educational facility opened by the YMCA in August.

"He's not a gang member because we've stayed

on him," Parrish remarks. "Before he would've been in Third Shift, no doubt. The more you're around that atmosphere, the more you have to fight."

Parrish, of Mexican and American descent, has spent 24 years on the street helping at-risk youth through his ministry in his home state of Texas as well as California, Florida, New Mexico, Ohio and Oklahoma. In 2005, Parrish moved to Manatee County where he became involved with Youth for Christ and the YMCA.

Parrish is one of several representatives from the YMCA, local law enforcement agencies, the Boys and Girls Club, Manatee Glens, Manatee Schools and other organizations who meet regularly as the Attorney General's Gang Prevention Task Force in Manatee County.

The cell phone rings a few times on the way to Orange Ridge-Bullock Elementary School, where Parrish has been asked to meet with a young girl who has been missing class since her older brother was arrested for attempted murder.

He prays with one woman whose son is getting out of jail and is in need of a job. Another woman calls, upset that she may lose custody of her grandson. He prays with her, too. He gets a call from a pastor friend who is scheduling mission work to be done in Pride Park. A man from Manatee County Children's Services calls him about enrolling a kid at the Y School.

In between phone conversations, Parrish pulls up to a home where three men are hanging out front. He honks, calls them over, offers a business card and says if they need help getting jobs or personal necessities to give him a call.

"I'm bringing a baby girl in this world and we need a lot of stuff," one man says, accepting the business card.

As he drives away, Parrish explains the encouragement he gives people daily.

"Poverty is not a sin," he says. "What I do is constantly build relationships and explain we can change the direction of their lives.

"My stepdad used to stand me in a chair and say, 'I love you, son. You're gonna change the world. You're gonna do something great.' And I believed it."

Parrish carries on that tradition.

"One kid told me he wanted to be a Kung Fu master," Parrish says, chuckling. "I'm a daddy to about a thousand kids."

But Parrish can't do it alone.

"We can surround families with people who care," he says. "A network is a beautiful thing."

After stopping at Orange Ridge, Parrish meets up with a colleague. They exchange Play-Doh and other toys from the trunks of their vehicles. Then Parrish makes his lunch rounds, stopping at Southeast and Bayshore high schools.

Parrish talks to the kids, giving them high-fives and joking around. He stands next to Coach Elliot Washington during a class change.

"We have zero tolerance for gang activity," says Washington, who works in discipline at the school. "We have to deal with it directly as soon as we have an issue. We call police, Pastor Jerry and we document it."

Parrish returns to the Y School and sees one of the students on the sidewalk. He pulls over and asks why the boy isn't in class. He's done with his lessons for the day and has to get to work. Parrish tells him to hop in. On the ride, they share soccer stories.

"I started playing soccer when I was 8," the boy says, before agreeing to help coach a YMCA team.

Back at the Y School, Parrish offers a ride home for the boy he picked up earlier that morning.

"Pastor Jerry, why'd you decide to be so helpful?" the boy asks.

"Jesus," he answers.

After dropping the boy off, Parrish pulls over at an abandoned house tagged with gang graffiti.

"I just paint all over it. I don't care what color it is," he says, pouring brown paint into a tray he retrieved from the trunk. "It pops up everywhere. Somebody will tag it again. From my perspective, it's just part of the process. I've been doing it so long I just don't take it personally."

Parrish loads the supplies back up and drives toward Harllee Middle School to check in with more kids. He sees a familiar face in the front office.

"I got shot seven times last summer," the student says. "Pastor Jerry changed my life."

The two chat about the boy's grades and Parrish reminds him to set his sights on college.

"This right here is why I do it," Parrish says. "I've done countless funerals. That's the downfall of it all. Burying kids is terrible."

But Parrish remains that positive influence in people's lives.

"I'm not perfect, just consistent," he explains. "If we weren't doing what we are doing, they'd be locked up. I know who gang members are and aren't. Everyone is at risk in this town."

Driving through the county, Parrish stops to talk with kids riding their bikes in the middle of the day.

"These are great, great kids, but none of them are in school. It's an epidemic," he says. "But it's not the same town since the RICOs began. We were a community that didn't understand we have a gang problem. Now we're equipped."

Since 2007, more than 50 gangs members have been sent to prison on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization charges in which entire gangs are prosecuted.

"My ultimate goal would be to have a gang-free city, but that's not realistic," Parrish says. "So we let everyone be aware this is their town and they can get involved and make a difference."

At Sugg Middle School, Parrish meets with discipline liaison Homer Ordaz to discuss a student.

"You've got to love these kids. They come from every spectrum and deal with so many issues," Ordaz says.

They've had little issue with gang violence at school, but Ordaz sees the signs.

"You can see the groups forming," he says. "We offer counseling to children in threat of becoming gang members. We have a wonderful school resource officer that helps get rid of the stigma these kids have from their families that cops are the bad guys. He opens himself up to the kids.

"Pastor Jerry has a rapport that gets the kids to trust him," Ordaz adds. "They don't view him as a threatening authority figure."

Parrish stops by the YMCA offices that afternoon, dropping off documentation of the 100-plus miles he drove that day.

"We identify the kids who are candidates of being in gangs or are in gangs," says Sean Allison, Manatee YMCA president and CEO. "We work at trying to intervene in these kids' lives. We take an interest in their families and their needs."

With Parrish's success, the YMCA brought on Robert Bolt to do the same in Palmetto.

"There are a lot of people who have apathy and don't want to be involved or don't recognize the problem exists," Bolt says. "The more people focused on doing something positive for the community, the better off everyone is."

All kids share the same goals: to have success, a career, a family and nice house.

"Some think the gang is a shortcut to getting them, but they find out that's not the case," Allison says. "If you're in a gang, you'll end up in jail or dead. A lot of people don't understand how easy it is to make a difference in a person's life."

After briefing the boss on his day, Parrish returns to his SUV and heads out to Lakewood Ranch. It's 3:30 p.m. and he's finally having lunch while meeting with a pastor and father struggling with his son's behavior.

Parrish gives straightforward advice and support. As the exchange ends, Parrish hands him a business card, stating his phone is always on. It's somewhat of a rare situation for Parrish. This is a case where a child came from a supportive family, but got wrapped up with the wrong crowd. But this kid is lucky - his parents care.

"There are so many kids, but no parents," Parrish said. "You have to take the community back block by block. You've got to be a counselor, pastor, father. It's just the Bible in action."

After a nearly 12-hour day, Parrish goes home where he wears the hats of husband, father and grandfather to his own family.

But his phone is always on for his thousand other kids.

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