CEDAR RAPIDS — When she became a cop nearly 22 years ago, Jess Barnhart said, all she wanted to do was help people and make a difference in her community — something she thinks she’s been able to do best since becoming a school resource officer in 2014.
“When I was working patrol, I often felt like I was treading water — like I wasn’t helping people as much as I wanted to,” she said.
Barnhart is the school resource officer at Polk Alternative Education Center, a school for students with significant challenges in social, emotional and behavioral skills, according to its website. Her position there started as an experiment.
“I was on the bomb squad for 12 years before this,” she said. “Back in like 2012 or 2013, I would get dispatched to Polk quite a bit, and I was just there all the time and started connecting with kids and the staff, and I just loved it.”
At that time, the police department had resource officers at only a couple of schools, she said, but was considering adding one at Polk.
“I was there every Friday for like a year,” she said. “And I just fell in love with it. The more I got involved with those kids, the more I knew I wanted to do that full time.”
The next year, Barnhart got her wish, “and I’ve been there ever since.”
“I just love it,” she said. “I love my kids, and I just feel like I’m making more of a difference now that I could have in any other position.”
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In fact, Barnhart loves “her kids” so much that a few weeks ago she decided to do something special to surprise them. She wanted to get new bicycles and/or shoes for every student attending the school.
The idea, she said, started when she was talking to two middle school boys about their plans for the weekend. When she suggested getting out their bikes and spending some time outside, the boys said that wouldn’t be possible.
“One of the boys explained that his bike didn’t have working brakes, and he kept getting in trouble for ruining his shoes because he was using them to stop his bike. The other boy, she said, said his bike was broken by his former stepdad, who was fighting with the boy’s mother at the time.
“I just couldn’t get those boys out of my head,” she said. “I thought about them all weekend, and I was just like, God, I’ve got to get these boys bikes.”
Barnhart knew a lot of people who would be interested in helping, so she created a post on her personal Facebook account. The project grew from there.
“Before I knew it, I had a ton of people offering to donate or purchase bikes, and in that first wave of donations, I think we raised like $1,100,” she said.
Donations kept coming in, and before she knew it, Barnhart said, she had raised enough to get bikes and shoes for each middle-schooler — about 30 in all.
Then, she said, she set her sights on getting bikes or shoes for all the high school students.
“A lot of our kids don’t get new things,” she said. “Some of them come from difficult backgrounds, some their families might not be able to afford it, and others get hand-me-downs. So I wanted to get as many new bikes and shoes for them as I could. I just wanted them to have that special things that was just for them.”
And the looks on their faces when she unveiled the bikes and shoes were priceless, Barnhart said.
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“One kid covered his face and gave a thumbs-up. Another grinned from ear to ear,” she said. “It was really neat to see them so happy and excited.”
Barnhart has yet to deliver bikes and shoes to the school’s high school students. That collection effort has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Barnhart said she has about 15 bikes and 15 pairs of shoes collected for the high school students, but she still needs items for about 20 to 30 more students.
Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, Barnhart said, donations have slowed to a trickle. She added that she has spent a lot of her own money buying bikes and shoes.
“And that’s totally fine,” she said. “I know that it’s a terrible time, and I’m not asking for much. I’m hoping by summertime, I will have all I need for the rest of the kids. I’m not going to let these kids down, you know I just can’t do it.”
Those interested in donating can leave money or items at the Cedar Rapids Police Department at 505 First St. SW. Checks should be made payable to the Cedar Rapids Police Protective Charity — or CRPPC for short. Mark the donations “Attention: Officer Jess Barnhart.”
“You know, I love kids, and I especially love my kids (at the school),” she said. “And I think it’s because I could never have kids of my own, so I love all these kids as my own.
“It’s killing me to be away from them (because of the school closures), and I can’t wait until we can all get back to our normal lives and I can give out the rest of the bikes and shoes.”
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