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Running Rebels to stay put

Victor Barnett, executive director and founder of Running Rebels Community Organization, announces RRCO’s renovation plans for its recently purchased facility on Fond du Lac Avenue and West Walnut Street in Milwaukee. The two existing buildings will be renovated and an adjacent gymnasium/fitness center and parking lot will be added.

Daily Reporter photo/Joe Grundle

For 25 years, Milwaukee’s Victor Barnett has made men out of boys through
his inner-city Running Rebels Community Organization.

Soon, Barnett and
the Running Rebels will be able to stop running, as the organization announced
Thursday its plans to build a permanent home for its powerhouse Amateur Athletic
Union basketball teams, as well as its tutoring, mentoring, music and youth entrepreneurial
programs.

“We had nationally ranked basketball teams and no gym space
to practice,” Barnett said at the announcement. “Finally, we were lucky
enough to be able to buy this building.”

The $3.6 million renovation
of the RRCO’s three-story 1300A Fond du Lac Ave. location, which RRCO purchased
in 2005, will include a regulation high school basketball gymnasium and fitness
center addition, nutrition center, cafeteria, library, computer room, recreation/media
center and performance theatre.

“We saw that the building was not satisfying
all of our needs, so we wanted to fix it up and better utilize the space,”
said Barnett. “We no longer will have to rent places for (music) performances.”

Barnett
was born in Mississippi and moved to Wisconsin in the seventh grade. Even at that
young age, he realized he wanted to someday be a part of keeping kids out of gangs.

“I
saw there were a lot of young people headed in the wrong direction, and I thought,
‘One day, I’m going to be a part of something that stops that,’”
he said.

When Barnett founded the Running Rebels in 1980, he had little
more than a vision and a purpose. Today, 700 young people and their families are
served annually by the private, nonprofit organization.

“I had to foot
the bill for a lot of things in the beginning but knew that one day it would be
worth it,” Barnett said. “Now, we do receive funding for our programs,
but we would like to do more.”

Impressive alumni

Barnett’s
efforts over the last 25 years touched countless numbers of people’s lives,
many of whom thanked him at the announcement.

“What started as one
brother helping out another has blossomed into the organization we have today,”
said Dell Williams, the announcement’s master of ceremonies and Barnett’s
first “little brother.”

“Victor realized you can’t tell
kids to just say no without giving them something to say yes to.”

“He
made something out of nothing,” said Nathan Cooper, a former Running Rebel
who graduated from Tuskegee University and is now an electrical engineer for GE
Medical Systems and music director for RRCO.

RRCO has produced such luminary
alumni as basketball player Shannon Smith, who was drafted by the NBA’s Indiana
Pacers, and Richard Badger, assistant to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. The organization
that bills itself as a positive alternative to gangs and substance abuse has grown
to include both high-risk boys and girls.

“It started out as just young
men based upon the expertise we had working with men,” Barnett said. “Now,
we have female staff volunteers that are good working with young ladies. We feel
blessed and honored to be able to do both now.”

NAI MLG Commercial
of Brookfield is developing the renovation project, while Stephen Perry Smith
of Menomonee Falls-based Stephen Perry Smith Architects Inc. is the architect
and chairman of the building committee.

Overall project costs have been
reduced due to the generosity of many donors. Centimark Corporation donated a
complete roof tear off and replacement, while George Bogdanovich, president of
Community Warehouse, is providing discounted building materials. However, more
funds are still being sought to ensure the project’s success. Naming rights
for several building features, such as the gym, will also be sold to raise money.

“It’s
just been amazing to me to see how organizations are starting to work together,
whereas in the past that was not the case,” said Barnett.

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