Parker Johnson Art Event

This Valley Senior Is Helping Refugee Students, Families Share Their Voice. Here’s How.

One West Des Moines Community Schools (WDMCS) student is leading the charge of showcasing the talents and spirit of children in refugee communities in West Des Moines and the greater Des Moines area, going as far as publishing a book and establishing a new nonprofit organization to do so.

ParkerJohnson Campus 2021

Parker Johnson.

Roughly 10 years ago, Valley High School senior Parker Johnson remembers how his family helped resettle another family from Myanmar, a country in southeast Asia. 

“We helped them get situated and acclimated to living in the U.S. and made some connections with them and with other organizations that helped with refugee work in West Des Moines and Des Moines.”

Over time, that experience impacted Johnson personally as he grew older—especially when he thought about the children of these refugee families. He learned and drew inspiration from them, and wanted to provide a platform to share their voice.

“It’s really an important demographic to hear from,” Johnson explained. “Lots of times, they don’t get coverage in the news because they’re just kids—and these kids in particular because they’re refugees. Over half the refugees coming to Iowa are under the age of 18.

“So as significant as they are in our state and globally, it’s crucial to show the amazing talents they have.”

How Johnson’s Project Came To Be

Central Iowa Arts Initiative Art sample

A sample drawing from a Central Iowa Refugee Arts Initiative event.

In July, Johnson teamed up with the Des Moines Refugee Support and held a youth event at Evelyn K. Davis Park in Des Moines. Each attendee received art supplies like colored pencils, markers, and a canvas outline of the state of Iowa. While they drew, volunteers walked around the stations and asked kids background questions—kind of like an informal interview, Johnson said.

“The kids got to bring the art supplies home with them, and I brought home the responses they gave and their art,” he said.

Soon thereafter, Johnson photographed each child’s drawing and compiled their stories as individual entries. He launched the website, where the artwork and information can be viewed today.

“On the website, each kid has a photo of them holding their art and a bit about them,” Johnson said, noting that he also published a book with their artwork and responses included. The book can be purchased online for $25, with funds benefiting the Des Moines Refugee Support. 

“I’m really happy with how this turned out,” Johnson continued. “I kind of realized the next phase of this project was to find a way to continue it, so this nonprofit (Central Iowa Refugee Arts Initiative) that I started is basically the scaffolding for future events and shows.”

Future Events & Stories To Share

Central Iowa Arts Initiative Event

Students at Crestview School of Inquiry participate in a Central Iowa Refugee Arts Initiative event in August 2020.

A second event in August included a group of about eight students and their parents from Crestview School of Inquiry, Johnson said. Joining forces with Caryn Kelly, intercultural outreach coordinator at WDMCS, this event was a three-week welcoming series for participants to get a sense of how remote learning would work amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The kids would have activities in the morning, and on one of the dates I came and helped with organizing an art event,” Johnson said.

Now in the thick of college applications, Johnson—one of Valley’s 18 National Merit Scholar semifinalists announced earlier this school year and last May was one of four Valley students to earn a composite scores of 36 on the ACT test—hopes to continue working with WDMCS students and parents. Families interested in attending a future Central Iowa Refugee Arts Initiative event could expect one happening over school breaks, so stay tuned for more details.

“I wanted to create a structure and host events where these kids get to work on art projects and enjoy themselves,” Johnson said. “Even if I’m not in charge, the mission of this organization will remain the same: to continue sharing the stories of these students.”

My Art, My Story: Art From The Heartland

Learn more about Johnson’s project, view artwork, and purchase the book online by visiting