As reported on, written by Amy Schwabe

Growing up in the late 1970s and early ’80s on 20th Street between Fiebrantz Avenue and Olive Street, Dell Williams needed some guidance.

“I was on the way to being in trouble,” he said. “I was hanging out with the wrong group of people because I had nothing to do. Back then there was no YMCA, no Boys and Girls Club.”

Williams’ neighbor, 19-year-old Victor Barnett noticed.

Barnett didn’t grow up in Milwaukee, but as a child in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, he had several older friends who had helped him stay out of trouble. That made Barnett realize that people had to look out for each other.

“Victor came to me and asked me what I liked to do. And I didn’t know,” Williams said.

After a few false starts — he got hit in the face by the ball at his first try at baseball, he wasn’t a fan of wrestling, and roller skating wasn’t his favorite — Williams and Barnett stumbled upon basketball.

Building relationships through basketball

There was a basketball court in the neighborhood (Williams says it’s still there today), and Williams started bringing his friends (his “good friends” as he described them — the ones who wanted to stay out of the gangs that were forming) to play basketball with him and Barnett.

“We formed a basketball team,” Williams said. But it was more than that. Barnett would have the boys clean up the court before playing, he would take them to movies, talk to them and just spend time with them.

“I took them on outings and other fun things to keep them busy,” Barnett said. “Gangs were just getting started in the neighborhood then, and I was going to keep these brothers away from that.”

In fact, Williams said, Barnett even got the park with the basketball court declared a safe zone.

“There were two gangs in the area,” Williams said. “He got the gangs to agree to keep their stuff away from the park, so it was safe for kids to play.”

The origins of Running Rebels

In fact, the park became well-known as a safe place to hang out — so well-known that Williams laughed that it became overrun with kids.

Barnett said, “It grew fast. That first year, there were 50 young people who wanted to play basketball and stay away from gangs.

By the next year, word of mouth had spread, and there were 100 people. I was like, ‘oh my goodness, how am I going to do this?’ “

That was the beginning of Running Rebels, which would eventually become what it is today — a community organization that provides mentors to kids, coaches them in basketball and works with the county to provide classes, tutoring and even jobs to kids who are in the juvenile justice system.

Although Barnett is credited as the group’s founder, he says it wouldn’t have gone anywhere without his first mentee.

Williams brought his friends to the basketball court, and then kept coming back, first as a mentee, then as a mentor himself.

How to be a mentor

“Dell took the principles I taught him and then took it to a whole other level,” Barnett said. “He’s probably been one of the more successful basketball coaches in Running Rebels, in terms of winning games, yes, but also in terms of changing lives.”

Williams joined the Air Force after he graduated from high school. When he came back to Milwaukee, he visited Barnett, and, as usual, saw him talking to a group of kids.

“Victor pulled me aside and said he wanted to talk to me about giving back,” Williams said.

And Williams started giving back by helping Barnett with his fledgling organization — helping out on the playground in the summer months, helping to get the group situated in its first building, coaching basketball, and, of course mentoring.

“I wanted to help out as much as I could,” Williams said. “I started working with a group of kids. They were only 11 years old, and we had a basketball league, we did fundraising, I took them to a tournament in Florida.”

For some of the kids, Williams became a father figure, even taking them into his home to live with him when their parents weren’t in the picture. Building relationships with kids is so important to him that, rather than mentoring a different child here and there for a few months, he starts with a group of fourth graders, mentors them throughout grade school, then high school, some until they’re 24 or 25 years old, and then he goes back and starts with another group of fourth graders.

“Dell still mentors the younger kids now,” Barnett said. “He’s such a great success story. Can you imagine the impact it has when I’m talking to a group of kids and I ask Dell to come — and he always comes when I ask him to — and I can tell those kids, ‘This was the first person I mentored. Forty years ago, I taught him the same principles I’m teaching you, and this is how it works out.’ “

And Williams has added another level to his mentorship. He now mentors fathers in addition to kids.

“I got a lot of practice being a father with all the kids I’ve mentored, and I have my own son, and I got advice from Victor and from my own dad (who he had a better relationship with as he grew older),” Williams said.

Williams uses all that knowledge with the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative, a Milwaukee organization that works to help fathers spend more time with their kids.

Williams works with a lot of dads in the House of Correction, where he teaches a program called “Nurturing Fathers.”

“We give them a lot of information, we teach them how to be better men and better fathers,” Williams said. “Then, when they get out, we’re contacts for them to help them with whatever they need.”

Both Running Rebels and the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative provide so many services that it can be difficult to quantify which is the most important. Williams and Barnett don’t hesitate, though.

It’s the mentoring.

“If you’re a successful coach, you’re a mentor first,” Barnett said. “A lot of our mentoring happens on the court, but a much bigger piece happens off the court. We spend so much time with these young men, building relationships.”

And, as the friendship between Barnett and Williams proves, they’re relationships that last.

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