Yesterday, I had the chance to sit down and have a cup of coffee with three members of a group I’d never heard of before, but I’m glad I do now.
They make up the leadership of Running Rebels, a 32-year-old vision of its founder, Victor Barnett. Along with his co-executive director and wife, Dawn, this publicly and privately funded group has helped thousands of Milwaukee kids at risk of gun violence.
Of course, the timing for meeting this group wasn’t coincidental. Today, Running Rebels’ Development and Marketing Coordinator Heather Aldrich kicked off an edgy marketing campaign centered around the slogan, "I can stop a speeding bullet."
It really is a success story that more Milwaukeeans should know about.
"My vision is to take the front line and try to connect it to the right resources," says Victor Barnett. "Milwaukee has always been a city where people care and want to fix problems. We have a really good opportunity to do that."
Alrdich says the Serve Marketing built the creative, and now it’s time to get the word out. "My job is to bring awareness, to tell the dozens of stories. You can’t fund programs that you don’t know about."
Indeed, the group has flown a little under the radar, but each year, Running Rebels helps about 2,500 intensively monitored students, many of whom have been court-ordered to join in lieu of juvenile detention. The others are voluntary sign ups, and Running Rebels helps through job training, basketball and other programs created to straighten kids out.
Dawn Barnett told me the one-year program has an incredible 80 percent success rate for youths 10-21, and many of the Running Rebels graduates remain in the program, in some way, for life.
"We have prevention and intervention programs," says Aldrich. "Gun violence is something that does get peoples’ attention, and if that’s the best way for us to bring attention to the organization, then we’ll do that."
"I can stop a speeding bullet doesn’t just mean to physically stop a speeding but, but I can intervene on something that will become a violent situation," says Dawn Barnett.
Adds her husband, "If we don’t work with those young people on the front end, they will be the ones doing the shooting. Now they’re getting jobs and being successful."
The benefits to the community are obvious, but Running Rebels also saves Milwaukee County substantial money – more than $60 million that would be spent on attempting to house and rehabilitate non-violent young prisoners. That means the group makes fiscal sense, but it still needs volunteers and funding for the recreation department to keep kids in the program long after it’s officially over.
"Just the basics are funded, "says Dawn Barnett. "But we never give just the basics. We’re available to them all the time."
The success stories speak for themselves, so you should give a look to the YouTube video below. These are mentors who started out as chronic lawbreakers, and without Running Rebels, they’d probably be incarcerated today.
Similarly, the ads are designed to get peoples’ attention. "The stakes are too high not to," says Aldrich.
Still, says Victor Barnett, "There are a lot of people who haven’t heard of us or don’t understand it enough to give it a chance to work on a bigger scale. If we were able to get to the level we want to, we can make a difference."
I know now that Running Rebels is a great group that could use a well-deserved hand. It’s making Milwaukee a safer place, breaking the chain of violence and giving kids a second chance. That’s a cause we can all get behind.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.