Bella Cox took notice of the new entrance monitor at Kooser Elementary almost immediately when she came back to school after winter break in January.
Maybe it was his wheelchair, the fact that the grown-up checking in visitors and giving tardy passes to straggling students got around just like Bella, who has her own, hot pink wheelchair.
But within the month, Bella was doing something she’d not done with any of the other teachers or staff members at Kooser: She was calling the new entrance monitor by his name. Well, almost.
“Hi, Derome!” she’d yell from down the hall. “Hi, Derome!”
And that spring when the school had a fire drill, Jerome Blowers followed behind as the nurse pushed Bella’s chair toward the door -- and the second-grader was determined to make sure her friend did not get left behind.
“Tum on, Derome!” she shouted, waving her arm, motioning him forward. “Tum, on!”
That, the folks at Kooser are pretty sure, has more to do with the man than his wheelchair.
“He’s a guy that builds relationships,” said Principal Ann Jablonski, who hired Blowers in January, his first job since a pool accident in his backyard on July 19, 2014, ended a 22-year career as a Lincoln police officer.
He was with his family, and jumped into their above-ground pool by performing the standard flip he'd always done. But this time something went wrong.
The impact shattered his sixth vertebrate and bruised his spinal cord, paralyzing him instantly.
Doctors fused his fifth and seventh vertebrae so he had some use of his arms and hands. He spent a week in the intensive care unit and three months at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital learning to eat and brush his teeth, improving his dexterity, learning to lift himself out of bed and into his wheelchair.
He and his wife Jodi, and daughter Camden, adjusted to a new reality. They renovated their home to make it wheelchair accessible, got a modified a van so he could drive to and from physical therapy. He officially retired from LPD on Dec. 11, 2014. And they moved forward, together.
“It’s been a journey the last three years,” the 52-year-old Blowers said. “I didn’t know exactly where I’d be.”
* * *
But Blowers did know Lincoln Public Schools, and he did know kids.
Much of his two decades in law enforcement had been centered on children, first as an investigator in the family crimes unit, then as a school resource officer. He spent two years working at 11 elementary schools before budget cuts led to the elimination of the grade school program. He spent another six as a school resource officer at Southwest High School.
His years as an investigator in family crimes were the toughest, he said. He worked horrific child abuse cases, was among the first investigators to work at the new Child Advocacy Center, a homelike setting where officers like Blowers can interview children and coordinate with prosecutors so their investigation won’t re-victimize the young victims.
“That’s where I realized I had a definite passion for children,” he said.
He spent his years in the grade schools talking to kids about stranger danger and gun safety, telling kids how to be safe on bikes and in pools and in water.
Raised as a middle child of seven, a rowdy kid and four-sport high school athlete who struggled in school, Blowers found he related to kids. He was drawn to the children who had little, saw how his interest in their day made them blossom.
“I kind of had a soft heart for the kids who had rough childhoods,” he said.
At Southwest, he learned the value of establishing relationships with all kids, the patience it takes -- and the benefits it reaps.
“They wave at you with one finger as a freshman, and with their whole hand by the time they’re seniors,” he said.
One young man chose to hang out with him, decided he wanted to take a different path than his brother and ignored peers who wondered why he was spending time with a cop.
That boy ended up playing football at Wayne State, the alma mater of his friend Officer Blowers.
When Blowers began to think of going back to work, those are the stories he remembered.
“It’s turning kids’ lives around and working as a team for the success of the kids,” he said. “Helping them find their own path.”
* * *
Blowers’ path led him to Kooser, the northwest Lincoln elementary where he found himself waiting in the office for an interview last winter.
Jablonski came out of her office to motion him in for his interview, and recognized him immediately as the off-duty cop she’d worked with for years at LPS science fairs.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said. “Come on in.”
She hired Blowers soon after.
“When I hire I look for people who can build relationships. I wanted someone warm and welcoming -- and his law enforcement experience was just an extra plus,” she said. “He’s been a great fit because he instantly gets to know families and who they are.”
* * *
He got to know Bella, of course, and thinks his experiences give him a perspective about living with a disability he didn’t have before, that he can be a mentor and friend to students facing similar challenges.
He knows how important it is to stay positive, he said, to understand those challenges shouldn’t stop you from being the best you can be.
“I’m the same person,” he said. “I’m just not walking.”
Which is why teachers seek him out to help students with math or social skills or just be a friend.
Last year, he said, one student had been stealing small items, and staff asked Blowers to spend time with her. They became friends, and things got better, until she stopped coming to see him, avoided eye contact when she walked past the office.
So Blowers talked to her, knew she’d taken something again, knew she was embarrassed about it and felt terrible.
“I gave her some Kleenex and said, ‘Here we go again. It’s a new day.’ I told her I was proud of her, and that I always would be.”
She hasn’t had problems since, he said.
"She waves at me every chance she gets."
* * *
During his years as a grade school resource officer, he came to realize the school office is like a flight deck, a hub of information, the place that keeps everything running smoothly.
He’s a part of that hub now at Kooser, has a special desk LPS made to fit his wheelchair.
“It’s such a positive environment,” he said. “Everyone’s goal is the same.”
He's been volunteering at Madonna for awhile now, mentoring patients with spinal cord injuries, but he finds it good to be back at work.
“It’s good to know I’m still in the game, I’m still a productive part of society, a productive citizen of Lincoln, that just because you have a tragedy or illness you still have a lot to offer.”
As a police officer, he had a standard spiel he’d give kids about friends, how having five good friends is all you need, that often one of those friends is a parent.
He still uses that spiel, in a new job using skills honed over two decades in law enforcement.
“It feels like it’s the next chapter,” he said.