Running Rebels, a nonprofit that aims to keep Milwaukee’s central city youth away from negative influences, has had thousands of success stories over its 38 years. One story that its participants can really look up to: Kevon Looney, starting center for NBA champions the Golden State Warriors.
Looney, who was drafted by the Warriors in 2015 after a year of play at UCLA, began his profession in second grade when he joined the Running Rebels’ AAU team. As with many Rebels participants, playing basketball and the mentoring that came with it “helped keep my mind right,” Looney said in a recent media interview.
Running Rebels started in 1980 when Victor Barnett, then 19 years old, began to organize pick-up basketball games at a lot near 20th Street and West Olive. The idea was to keep local kids busy and away from the encroaching influence of gangs, which had just started to penetrate the city. For 15 years Barnett mentored children via basketball—casual games evolved into serious AAU league play—and slowly increased the activities he offered. In the 1990s, a couple therapists encouraged Barnett to expand the emotional mentoring component of what he was doing in an effort to reach even more kids.
Today his organization is a powerhouse of support for many young Milwaukeeans, providing everything from after-school tutoring and sports to helping kids transition out of the city’s juvenile justice system. “We have programming that works with young people who have made mistakes in their life,” says Dawn Barnett, co-executive director of Running Rebels. “We intensively work with them to get them past their probation, to help them not reoffend and guide them through changing their mindset.”
Running Rebels’ targeted monitoring programs focus on keeping kids out of detention centers. Not only will Rebels’ advocates meet with kids in detention and work on getting them to a healthier mental state, they forge relationships with youth (and their siblings) once they’re out, matching them up with the people, services, educational opportunities and activities that will help them stay on the straight and narrow.
The organization also assigns staff members to all-day posts at seven of the city’s public schools—five high schools and two middle schools—where they offer an open-door policy for hundreds of kids characterized as chronic disruptors. “Their goal is to connect with the youth who are having trouble in school and making it difficult for teachers to do their jobs,” says Barnett, noting that her staff, because they’re not “of the school,” holds a higher level of trust with many of the kids, which helps to diffuse confrontations before they get out of hand. “We work to help kids overcome the challenges they are having and help promote healing and a restorative atmosphere.”
Rebels says it has facilitated more than 2,800 mediations with this program. With its higher education learning program, it has also helped numerous students get to and stay in college by providing anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 each year in scholarship money. It assists kids in crafting college essays and provides academic tutoring; once participants are in college, Running Rebels will send occasional care packages and check in by phone. “College is hard enough when you have support, let alone when you don’t,” says Barnett.
One thing Running Rebels hopes of its participants: If you benefitted from its programs, you should somehow give back. Not only did the Warrior’s Looney tutor younger kids academically when he was a senior in high school, these days he returns every summer to run a youth basketball camp. He also recently gifted $10,000 to the organization, which is raising money to fund its new location in the city’s Harambee neighborhood.
“We’ve never had our own gym before this—to be able to have a home with a gym is amazing,” says Barnett, who is truly passionate about his work. “We’re all about relationships—it only takes one positive relationship with an adult to help change the trajectory of a young person’s life.”