"Changed my life:" Running Rebels East to serve hundreds more of Milwaukee's at-risk youth

MILWAUKEE -- Thirty-seven years ago, the community organization Running Rebels began with a basketball court and about 50 kids.

"So they played here," founder Victor Barnett said, pointing at a small basketball court. "That was the office. That was the office -- the tree."

Running Rebels' first home near 20th and Olive

Victor Barnett at Running Rebels' first home near 20th and Olive

Barnett said the 20th and Olive location filled an immediate need -- to compete with a neighborhood gang for young boys and teens, and since basketball was a magnet, the spot was perfect.

The beginnings of Running Rebels is also a love story.

Dawn Barnett

When Dawn Barnett heard about the work Victor was doing, she was captivated.

"What he's done with young people, how he's trying to reach into the community to find other people who want to make a difference in the lives of young people -- to recruit new mentors, I felt an instant tug," Dawn Barnett said.

She was so inspired and committed to the cause, she quit her job and started walking with him on faith.

Victor Barnett

"I think our relationship and us was meant to be," Victor Barnett said.

Their shared interest turned into love and a marriage. They're now one family with one mission.

"She's just been able to kind of do the things that I'm not able to do, so I think together we make a great team," Victor Barnett said.

Since 1999, their mission has been carried out at Running Rebels' Fond du Lac Avenue location near W. Walnut Street, which now services about 1,500 young people. A replica of the tree from the park is painted on one wall.

Running Rebels on Fond du Lac Avenue

"The tree is the symbol of growth -- going from one point and ending at another point," Victor Barnett said.

At Running Rebels, they mentor and coach kids with good grades and who have never been in trouble, helping them stay on the right track, they assisting young people transitioning to adulthood with job skills and they redirect kids on the wrong path.

"I got into some trouble," Nicholas Watson-Wright said.

Nicholas Watson-Wright

He told FOX6 News he got connected with Running Rebels through the juvenile justice system.

"I was in the streets bad and this was really going to be my last resort. Either Running Rebels or Lincoln Hills, so Running Rebels really changed my life," Watson-Wright said.

He stuck to a strict program, finished school and now works for Running Rebels -- helping the agency expand to a new facility on Capitol Drive, east of I-43. The Barnetts said the expansion was confirmed by several columns in the building -- painted as trees.

Running Rebels East on Capitol Drive near I-43

The former Lad Lake site is now called "Running Rebels East." The Fond du Lac location is "Running Rebels Central."

There is a lot of room to grow in the new location. It includes office and classroom space, a cafeteria, kitchen, indoor basketball court and so much more.

Running Rebels East on Capitol Drive near I-43

"To have a beautiful building like this, our dream come true, is really just the first step in it," Victor Barnett said.

The Zilber Family Foundation has provided a half-million dollar gift for the expansion -- and pledges another $500,000 when Running Rebels secures $3 million.

Victor Barnett is up for the challenge.

Running Rebels East on Capitol Drive near I-43

"As long as we're making the right moves, there's no fear. There's no doubt that we will get the support that we need because there are good people out here," Victor Barnett said.

As excited as they are about the potential to serve hundreds more young people -- the Barnetts, including their children, are also focused on the present.

Young Vic, age 13, serves as studio engineer and spreads positive messages through rap.

And, son Derrick Shoates, age 24, works for Safe and Sound, another community organization working with youth. He's collaborating with Running Rebels and others, bringing back the Midnight Basketball League for the city's young men ages 17 to 25.

"I really learned and appreciate everything, watching the organization grow," Shoates said.

Running Rebels East on Capitol Drive near I-43

CLICK HERE to learn more about Running Rebels and how it's positively impacting the lives of Milwaukee's young people.