By Karen Stokes
In 1980, Victor Barnett wanted to bring about a transformation in the community by offering youth an alternative to gang involvement and making Milwaukee a better city. At the age of 19, Barnett founded the Running Rebels Community Organization.
“It was just me for the first few years.The first office was on 20th and Olive by Rufus King High School,” said Barnett.
“I started the program to stop kids from joining gangs and to have activities going on that kept their interest.”
Barnett, 55, said that the biggest change to take place over these 35 years has been in funding everything from his own pocket by working two or more jobs, to later being funded by generous businesses and neighborhood organizations.
The program started with a basketball team to draw kids to the program. “What we do is driven by the kids,” Barnett explained.
Even the name ‘Running Rebels’ was a result of the kids looking for a name for their newly formed basketball team.
According to Barnett, about 50 kids got together and decided to name the program after the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) basketball team which was a hot, exciting NCAA Division 1 basketball team at the time.
Barnett maintains that the Running Rebels create programs where the kids interests lie.
In the beginning it was basketball, music, and entrepreneur programs to teach the young people how to raise money.
In 35 years, the Running Continued on page 7 Rebels Organization has grown to a staff of 125 with 25-30 volunteers.
In 1999, they moved to their present facilities located at 1300A West Fond du Lac Ave.
Walking down the halls of the organization, success stories, awards and photos of participants are displayed proudly on the walls.
Running Rebels is more than your average community center. It now offers mentoring programs, a serious chronic offender program, entertainment programs, violence free zones, a youth entrepreneur program and an athletic program which includes football, basketball, boxing, track and cheer leading.
“We have a joke, if enough young people wanted to play tiddlywinks, we’d have a tiddlywinks team,” said Barnett.
R-Life Cafe, located in the Running Rebels building is another program that creates jobs for youth.
The restaurant that is open weekdays from 11a.m. until 6 p.m., trains participants in food service.
R-Life Cafe offers a delicious menu of spicy jerk chicken, burgers and fries, tacos, catfish sandwiches and more. They also deliver.
“I enjoy working with the youth,” said Tracy Amos, human resources assistant at Running Rebels, who also mentors youth at the cafe.
“We have youth that want to learn to cook, so I wanted to be there with them. I really enjoy it.”
Running Rebels coordinates with the community through the Pipeline to Promise Program.
Pipeline to Promise is a program that connects with area businesses, government agencies and community organizations to provide jobs, training, scholarships and access to resources and housing. The overall goal of the partnership is to reduce poverty.
With the collapse of manufacturing jobs, Milwaukee has seen a jump in poverty.
A February CBS news story on the poorest cities in America utilized compiled data from the American Community Survey and found Milwaukee, Wis. the second poorest city in America.
With a population of nearly 600,000, over 36 percent of the population have annual incomes under $25,000.
Detroit is the first with a population of approximately 706,000, over 48 percent of their annual income under $25,000.
“Economic development is important. We can talk about reducing crime, but if people are constantly in poverty, they’re not going to be able to turn the corner.
If people can do better financially and not have to worry about their electricity being turned off, no food, living with stress, they would be able to help to do things to make the community better,” Barnett said.
Running Rebels has upcoming events open to the community. On Oct. 25, the annual Scholarship Banquet will take place.
Through fundraising, foundation, and community efforts, the Running Rebels Organization looks to award approximately $15,000 in scholarships to college students.
Over the past 15 years, Running Rebels has awarded over $90,000 in scholarships.
On Nov. 28 and 29, the Running Rebels will host the 9th annual Fresh Coast Classic, sporting event in Milwaukee.
The basketball tournament features area high school teams, and the event begins with a college and resource fair with over 40 colleges participating.
Fundraising is important for organizations like Running Rebels.
“In order to grow the program you have to have fundraising and have the public understand your mission,” said Barnett.
The Running Rebels receive funding from grants, foundations, and internal fundraising and benefits from volunteers that believe in their mission and want to give back to the community.
Natasha Renee Malone, business management sophomore at Texas Southern University, volunteers with the Running Rebels through the YMCA Black Achievers.
“Before I started with the Black Achiever program, I wasn’t college bound at all.
My main focus was hanging out with friends. Now, as an Alumni Achiever, I always go back to help out whenever I’m in Milwaukee.
I feel obligated to give back my time to help make a difference in a young teens life.”
“We try to help every young person we can,” Barnett said.
“We work to get the funds, we try our best. Milwaukee is too high with a lot of negative statistics. I believe we can turn this city around.”