Here comes Thomas Bellmon -- the pied piper -- walking down a noisy neighborhood street with a trail of kids following him, some giving hugs and others bantering small talk. As he passes houses, others race to him, rushing out of doors and grabbing lunches and towels for the day's activities.
Mr. Bellmon -- a six-year county police officer -- tells them to watch their way across the street, leading them to the Roger Carter Neighborhood Center, where he'll spend the day with them as part of the police department's summer youth development program.
Two days a week, Officer Bellmon and a handful of other officers take in about 60 youths as part of an eight-week program that targets Columbia's Guilford Gardens and Ellicott City's Hilltop, two apartment complexes in which "at-risk" youths live.
"Kids there have single-parent homes, and mom's working," Officer Bellmon, 31, said. "They have a lot of idle time. A lot of
these kids are good kids and need something to do."
The program began last year and is an extension of Project DARE, a drug awareness program the police department runs in public schools. The summer program includes lessons about the K-9 patrol, bike safety and peer pressure, to name a few, as well as time for a swim in the pool and a game of kickball.
"We try to educate them -- have fun with the kids, but educate them on drugs, safety, on being a good person, teaching them to respect one another," said Officer Bellmon, a father of three. "We try to create a positive environment."
The program aims to better police-youth relationships as well as to keep youths out of trouble by providing them with activities.
This week's lesson is on the eight ways of saying "no" to drugs. On the basketball court of the Carter neighborhood center, Officer Bellmon pulls out a black suitcase and opens it up, displaying an array of drugs and paraphernalia -- marijuana, speed, acid, a syringe needle, a miniature beer bottle. He points to each of them, explaining what they do and how they affect the body.
Some of the kids say they've heard about the different drugs before in school presentations, but "the kids seem to forget and they pick up things every year," said Leslie Groomes, 25, a mother of two.
The youths who attend the Hilltop program live in a neighborhood where they're used to seeing syringes and other paraphernalia strewn about, they say. Nine-year-old Lisa Bowie walked in the woods one day with girlfriends when one of them stepped on a needle that pierced through her shoe, impaling her foot. "We all carried her to our house and my mom called the ambulance to take her away," Lisa said. "I'm afraid it might get stuck in my foot when I'm walking and not looking."
"Before we go in at night, they'll be doing drugs on our playground," said 10-year-old Shamia Lawson, who's found dirty needles and empty crack vials near her home.
The youths say they like Officer Bellmon's lessons because he asks them to participate, to raise their hands to answer questions. "He's a nice policeman," said 11-year-old Tanya Kosh. "He's a good teacher."
"Tommy is probably the best person to do this program in the community," said Sergeant Bo Haslup, supervisor of the youth division. "Tommy's connected to the kids. That's something you're born with. You can probably find a couple hundred people, but they can't do the job Tommy does."
Officer Bellmon says he knows the conditions the youths face because he grew up in a rough neighborhood himself. Only police officers who came into his neighborhood to serve as role models and activities that kept him busy at recreation centers kept him out of trouble.
The day's lesson over, the youths split into two groups to play a friendly game of kickball. Later, lunchtime hits and the youths run home. Others have bagged lunch and will stay at the pool until it opens at noon. Officer Bellmon and partner Keith Lessner hit an eatery to grab a sandwich before returning to the youths.
"For me, it's like a family thing," Officer Bellmon said. "Like their hugs. You can't put a price on 30 or 40 kids hugging you."