Howard County police officer Thomas Bellmon, who grew up in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood and is a single parent to three sons, has apersonal message to deliver to children.
"I tell them that just because you grow up poor and have only one parent, it doesn't mean that you have to turn out bad," said Bellmon, 30, who counsels children ages 6 to 12 at camp Bear Trax in Carroll County.
Two of his own sons, Thomas Jr., 9, and Charles, 6, are in the Bear Trax camp, which offers children from separated and low-income families a chance to see police officers as something other than enemies.
At Bear Trax, a 13-year-old program created by the county PoliceDepartment, most of the counselors are police, and their job is to see that the campgoers have as much fun as possible during their five-day stay.
The camp is offered once each summer and is free to the Howard County children selected for it. Police raise the money each year -- about $14,000 -- through local contributors, such as the Rotary Foundation.
About 70 children are supervised by 15 police officers at the camp, located in the Hashawha Environmental Appreciation Center in Westminster, Carroll County.
"It's a chance for them to see us as buddies, and it also gives us a chance to talk to them about some of the pressures they may be putting on themselves," Bellmon said. "I want them to know that we're here to help them."
Anthony Phillips, 11, of Columbia said he used to be afraid of the police officers in his neighborhood. But after a few days with them, "I found out they're really nice," he said.
"They'll only treat you bad if you hurt yourself. If you do drugs, then they have to be tough with you,"Anthony said. "If you're just a normal kid, they don't want to bother you."
A typical day at the camp includes arts and crafts, swimming, rope climbing, canoeing, basketball and volleyball.
Youths areinvited to the camp by police officers, schoolteachers and communitymembers. Those nominated "are not delinquent, but elements in their environment have been identified as potential causes of later problems," a Bear Trax flier says.
Many of the children aren't used to the idea that they'respending their days with police officers. During one moment along the fishing dock last week, a police patrol car pulled into the nearby parking lot as a counselor arrived for camp.
Thereaction from one child appeared to be learned from the street. "Uh-oh, here come the cops," he said.
"They're already here," said Officer Mark Shiplett, who was helping the child catch fish.
Some, like 12-year-old Cliff Scovens of Ellicott City, say that it's a surprise to see police officers who "don't want to give us a hard time."
"It's really changed the attitude of the troublemakers. They see that the cops aren't all goody-goodys," Cliff said. "The ones here go out and fish with us, and do things with us. It kind of makes you feel important."
On Wednesday the group went to see a Frederick Keys baseball game. During the evenings, before the officers and the campgoers go to sleep in the same bunkhouses, "rap sessions" are held so each child can talk about problems or raise questions.
New to this year's camp are 45-minute discussions of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program (DARE), which recently was implemented in the Howard County school system.
Officer Keith Lessner, a counselor at Bear Trax who teaches the DARE program in the schools, is a former Baltimore City narcotics officer who spent more than 14 years as an undercover detective. Since then, he said, he has learned the value of reaching children at a young age.
"You would arrest one guy on the street corner for peddling drugs, and one minute later someone else moved in to take his place," Lessner said. "We just couldn't make a dent in the drug problem. I used to think, just write the world off, we can't stop this."
Education programs are the new hope for officers like Lessner, who said that the children at Bear Trax seem to want father figures and role models.
"I never in my life thought I'd one day become a so-called 'Kiddie Cop,' but you sooner or later have to realize that police have to be more than enforcers. They have to be educators too," he said.
Sgt. Bo Haslup, another counselor, said the BearTrax children -- many of whom have had discipline problems in school, and many of whom are on special medication for hyperactivity -- actually seem to enjoy tight police supervision.
"A lot of them haven't had a lot of structure in their lives, so it's new to them to see guys like us," he said. "Once they're indoctrinated to the structure and the authority, they love it."