January 11, 2011 by Media Milwaukee — Devonte Hill was 6-years-old when an unknown person shot him in the arm. While growing up in Milwaukee, Hill was getting into trouble for being involved in fights. Many of his friends were part of gangs. When he was 15-years-old, he decided to make a change by focusing on music and education instead of violence.
Hill joined the Running Rebels Community Organization for their music program. Running Rebels, located on 1300 W. Fond Du Lac Ave., provides Milwaukee’s youth with afterschool education and recreational activities as alternatives to gangs and substance abuse.
Hill is currently the Lead Engineer in the music studio. He said he was drawn to Running Rebels because the organization gave him the opportunity to pursue his goals. “Today, there are not many music programs in school,” said Hill.
Running Rebels began in 1980 when a Milwaukee man named Victor Barnett took about 50 young people out of gangs, creating a basketball team to help keep Milwaukee youth out of trouble.
Since then, Barnett has become the Executive Director of the organization, which has grown to provide about 15 programs with about 100 employees helping to improve academics, offering positive activities, and encouraging community involvement. Barnett said he continues to add programs based on the youth’s interests.
“A lot of young people are looking for a place to belong,” said Barnett. “That’s sometimes why gangs are so successful in recruiting people. Here we offer things they need. They need to be a part of something and need to feel safe.”
Today, the organization serves about 1,000 young people annually. About 175 of them are court appointed. Running Rebels has a referral system with Milwaukee County Children’s Court where juvenile offenders are offered to join Running Rebels as an alternative to jail. Barnett said his organization has a 77 percent success rate of keeping young people from re-offending.
Although the organization works with juveniles, the Running Rebels programs are open to anyone who is interested.
“We work with good kids and trouble makers,” said Barnett. “When they’re all in a room together, you don’t see the difference.”
Barnett shows his dedication as he runs around the building, tending to various programs while advising and helping the youth. He expresses concern as he listens to the youth and asks for their opinions.
Hill, who is now 18-years-old, said Barnett helped him become successful through mentoring. He is one of five students in his class who graduated with an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma from Montessori High School.
Hill taught himself how to play many instruments including the drums and guitar. He is also part of the administration for the Running Rebels Entertainment Group, allowing him to write and record songs in the Running Rebel’s music studio. The program gives kids the opportunity to perform and learn about the music industry. He said his goal is to work in the music business.
“Barnett opened me up and always told me I was intelligent,” said Hill. “He told me to be proactive rather than reactive.”
The beginning of Running Rebels
When Barnett moved to Milwaukee while in 7th grade, he said he saw many of his friends heading in the wrong direction.
Barnett said he learned how to mentor young people from joining the Young Men’s Christian Association and always knew he wanted to help youth. He noticed the young people who were getting into trouble usually didn’t trust adults, which motivated him to find a way to get closer to them.
When Barnett was 19-years-old, he started teaching basketball in neighborhood courts to young people in the Milwaukee community. He said basketball was just a way of connecting to the youth.
“I wanted to talk to young people and ask them what they wanted us to be,” said Barnett. “If they had connected to skating, we would’ve been the rolling rebels.”
Barnett mentored his basketball team without funding for about 10 years before he took an alternative corrections position with Milwaukee County. With a good reputation, the organization soon started receiving more funding from County programs, and continued to grow.
In 2006, Running Rebels found a location, reconstructing an old factory building on Fond Du Lac Ave. where the organization holds many of the programs today. The building includes a recreation room, a study room, an outside basketball court, and a music studio.
Today, former Running Rebel’s youth coach the basketball team.
“Seventy percent of our players have been with us for many years and didn’t just come to play basketball,” said Barnett. “They’re part of our family.”
Youth becoming active through programs
Not all kids involved with the organization are getting into trouble. Some join Running Rebels to pursue their interests through the programs. Pakk Mane, age 17, joined Running Rebels at age 15 to perform poetry through the Entertainment Group. Mane said the organization also helped him discover his passion for disc jockeying.
“I felt like it was a real opportunity,” said Mane. “I’m moving up further and further.”
The Entertainment Group is also involved in website work, videos, and photo shoots. As the Entertainment Group gathered for a photo shoot, they joked and laughed together while making funny poses.
The organization also has various athletic programs including football, track, cheerleading, and dance. Shayla Waller, age 17, is part of the Running Rebels dance team and said she’s learning different hip hop techniques her school doesn’t offer. The team often performs for Running Rebel events.
“The dance team helps me focus,” she said. “I’m not allowed to be on the dance team if I don’t get good grades.”
Barnett said his organization has recently started to focus on wellness and fitness. The Lady Rebels Program is one of the programs promoting exercise. The program also promotes sisterhood. After doing a craft together, the girls participate in a fitness exercise such as boxing.
A large part of the organization is also focused on education. The education programs offer mentoring, tutoring, classes, and community involvement.
“It’s sad to say some young people are not receiving the care and love at home,” said Barnett. “We make them do their homework, where at home, they may not care.”
Desmond Parker, age 13, said he joined Running Rebels because he needed something to do after school. He joined the Youth Entrepreneurship Program where the youth learn job skills and how personal choices affect work status. He volunteers to do maintenance work around the building every day of the week.
Parker said he would probably be heading in the wrong direction if Running Rebels didn’t give him alternative activities after school.
“I know people in the same grade as me who are carrying guns and at Running Rebels, there are more positive people,” said Parker.
Barnett said it’s important for him to help the kids reach their goals while encouraging them to stay out of trouble. He said his vision is to help make Milwaukee a better place, and eventually help improve society.
“I think this is my calling,” said Barnett. “I just connect with youth and look at things from the perspective of young people. We have what they want.”