I rise today to ask the House of Representatives to join me in honoring Mr. John Douglas, Executive Director of the Wilkie House in Des Moines, as our Iowan of the Week.
John’s gift for working with kids and helping them reach their highest potential is immediately evident upon visiting with him about his work. He speaks with passion and expertise on issues such as the importance of quality child care and the urgent need to address the childcare cliff effect to create better opportunity for families. At the Wilkie House you can see his determination and dedication not only in tackling big projects like significant infrastructure improvements to the building and playground, but also in little things like walking kids to their parent’s car at the end of the evening to say goodnight.
Like many small non-profit leaders, John dedicates an immense amount of time and effort, wears many hats, and maximizes limited resources to make his programs successful. During workdays that regularly last nearly 12 hours, John works on grants, community outreach and engagement, assisting families in overcoming barriers, and accessing resources and administration. He’s constantly working on growing funding to keep up with the increase in numbers so the Wilkie House can serve more children. With all that and more on his plate, he still spends time with the kids during afterschool activities and cites it a source of great joy.
Established in September of 1917, the Wilkie House initially served as an extension of the War Recreation Board for Black Officers at Fort Des Moines, making it one of the oldest African–American community-based organizations in the state of Iowa. Today the organization’s rich history is carried forward through the mission of developing character and esteem in young people through promotion of academics, building social skills, health, and recreation. The non-profit serves nearly 400 youth ages 5-18 years and their families during the fiscal year, with the majority of participants coming from low-income families and diverse ethnic backgrounds.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has presented significant challenges to John and his team. The Wilkie House was one of the first organizations to reopen and stay open throughout the summer and for virtual learning support in the school year. They adapted to facilitate safe, full-day school year programming during virtual learning days so youth participants could better understand and complete their academics, receive tutoring and daily meals, and fulfill critical social needs through recreational and social skill building activities. It would be impossible to measure the kind of positive impact this program has had on our community during such a difficult time.
Despite the additional challenges, John and the Wilkie House team have continued to provide after school programming so kids can have snacks and dinner, engage in active and creative activities, and receive tutoring and homework assistance. They maintain summer programming with trips to the park and the zoo, volunteer opportunities, and work with youth on growth areas like problem solving, coping with change, independence, compassion, and career readiness. John also helps the Wilkie House maintain its position as a community hub by hosting evening and weekend events that bring people together for meals, fun activities, sporting events, and even musical performances from groups like the Isiserettes Drill and Drum Corp.
Before stepping up to his current role, John worked as a coordinator of a federal grant at the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families. He spent time in higher education and worked internationally in non-profits to help families living in extreme poverty, including those in slums, orphanages, and children living on the street. Giving back to those in need, particularly young children, has been the highlight of his career.
Individuals like John Douglas who prioritize service over self in order to create a better life for individuals and better community for all their neighbors, especially those who are underserved and underrepresented, are commendable for so many reasons. Not only has he had an immediate and positive effect on the kids and families he serves through the Wilkie House, but the whole of Des Moines is better off because of his ongoing efforts. I’m proud to count John as a neighbor and thank him for his dedication. It is my honor to name him our Iowan of the Week.