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An oasis from the violence and hardships of the streets

Elizabeth Curran, 6, climbed a ladder on a ropes course at the YMCA’s Camp Ponkapoag in Canton.
Elizabeth Curran, 6, climbed a ladder on a ropes course at the YMCA’s Camp Ponkapoag in Canton.(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)

CANTON — Smooth highway yields to a dusty dirt road. The narrow, bumpy path wraps around a shimmering pond and plunges into a thicket of brilliantly green trees, which rings with children’s laughter.

And, finally, there it is: Camp Ponkapoag. The YMCA outpost, barely 20 miles from the heart of the city, is a lush oasis far from the scorching sidewalks of Dorchester and Roxbury. For dozens of Boston children every year, it’s also a reprieve from the violence and uncertainty that can be found in those neighborhoods, especially in the summer months.

And the children get there with the help of the Boston Police Department, an institution that, for some, invokes trepidation more than trust.

“If their experience with a police officer is that their father is in jail, their uncle is arrested, how do you expect them to have a positive outlook?” said Hayley Yaffe, YMCA of Greater Boston’s director of family support and subsidized services.

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One answer may be Camp Ponkapoag, and nine other day camps like it across Greater Boston. Every summer for the last 20 years, the Boston Police Department has partnered with the YMCA to identify children most in need of a few weeks at camp.

They are children whose relatives may be in jail, or may be drug users, or were recently victims of violence. They are children at risk of going down the same paths themselves.

They are children like 11-year-old Aren Williams, who one recent morning was camped out at the arts and crafts table, carefully folding a paper fish. But he had his eyes on a bigger project: a “safe place” he was building with friends, out of sticks and leaves, where they could sit and chat.

Safe places are rare in Williams’s life. In February, his 22-year-old neighbor, his singing partner at church, was fatally shot just steps from his Dorchester home, said Daphne Lopes, Williams’s mother. Williams still won’t walk past the house where the neighbor was killed.

Police have been integral to helping her son heal, Lopes said in a phone interview. Williams has wanted to be a police officer since he was 5 years old. Officers attended his elementary school graduation and gave him a Boston Police Department baseball cap — which he proudly wore as he snipped and folded.

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“I love the fact that this program exists and that the Boston police recognize that there are children here that need this escape,” Lopes said, her voice growing thick with tears. “This is not just an opportunity for my son to get out and play. This is an opportunity for the Boston police to help me, as a single mother, raise my son and save my son.”

This year, the police-YMCA partnership, underwritten by donors, has enabled 75 children to attend camp, usually for two or three weeks each — time they would otherwise spend in sometimes toxic environments they can now escape.

As police-community relations across the country are put to the test, following police-involved shootings in several cities and the targeted killings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., Boston police and YMCA officials said they hope children will learn officers are their friends.

“The more positive experiences that young people have with police officers, the greater the chance that those relationships will also exist as they become young adults and adults,” said YMCA of Greater Boston president James Morton.

“Today, I met a young girl who said that she was afraid of the police,” said Officer Rafael Rodriguez, a youth service officer who visited Camp Ponkapoag recently. Rodriguez is one of the YMCA’s partners in selecting children for the scholarships. “But after speaking with her for five minutes, we were able to break that barrier. She shook my hand and smiled.”

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Officers aren’t usually at camp, but they meet with family members after children are selected for scholarships. The officers often are already familiar with the families, which is how they identify them for support in the first place.

Other times, the YMCA points officers toward certain children, flagging them for extra care.

“The great thing about this partnership is we can help in two directions,” Yaffe said.

Some of the children at the camp, who range from 6 to 12 years old, may have initially flinched when they saw Rodriguez, but most seemed thrilled to see him. Rodriguez plied them with stickers and played a game of checkers.

Elizabeth Curran, 6, one of the scholarship recipients, bashfully offered Rodriguez a handmade thank-you card. “Do you know Carlos?” she asked him. Carlos, she explained, was an officer she and her mother often saw patrolling near their house.

This is Elizabeth’s first year at camp. Now that she is safe at camp every day, her single mother can work, rather than taking time off to care for her, said Lesley Silvia, the YMCA of Greater Boston’s urban initiative coordinator.

After all, parents know their children are being well cared for by others: the camp counselors and the police officers they have learned to trust.

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Watching Officer Rodriguez admire his paper fish, Aren Williams smiled from under his Boston police cap. “They’re like brothers to me,” he said.

Vivian Wang can be reached at vivian.wang@globe.com.