Operating Rebels emphasizing health as a part of pandemic programming


Running Rebels, a youth organization in Milwaukee, is hosting events to give kids new ways to stay fit during the pandemic.

The organization holds classes teaching kids how to play new sports and learn new activities to keep them in motion. The classes, part of a grant from Kohl’s Healthy Families and the American Cancer Society, have been ongoing since May.

Dawn Barnett, co-executive director of Running Rebels, said the programs were meant to address health issues that have been made worse by the pandemic. With kids stuck at home more often, they might be more prone to inactivity and bad eating habits, such as eating more junk food.

“It’s just the accumulation of all these unhealthy habits snowballing into our lives,” Barnett said.

Barnett said the organization is also focusing on nutrition, hosting smoothie bars and classes for healthier cooking.

Kim Abell, program manager for the Kohl’s grant with the American Cancer Society, said the grantors were excited to work with Running Rebels because of the chance to reach youth and families in Milwaukee.

Running Rebels received $30,000 from the grant. There are nine community wellness grants in total, with some focused on healthy cooking and access to healthy foods.

The goal, ultimately, is to help reduce cancer risk in the community through better living. Excess body weight and alcohol consumption causes about 18% of all new cancer cases, Abell said. Findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said obesity can be linked as causes for 13 cancers.

“A lot of people think of physical activities as a chore,” Abell said. “That’s why we want to expose youth to different ways of moving, to find something they actually enjoy doing.”

Kids involved with the programs have had the chance to try bachata dancing, volleyball, ultimate frisbee and swimming to name a few. People with experience in the sports, like participants from Milwaukee Medusa, a women’s ultimate frisbee team, teach the classes.

“When we have adults who are passionate about something, it’s infectious,” Barnett said.

Kelli Simmons, 17, has been coming to Running Rebels for four years. She said that before the pandemic there were even more options for fitness activities, but she’s glad to see more opportunities for kids.

“I wouldn’t have tried this otherwise,” Simmons said at an ultimate frisbee workshop on Jan. 28.

There are also other opportunities, such as basketball, available throughout the week.

The grant is set to end on Feb. 28, but Barnett said Running Rebels plans to continue some of the services regardless of funding. The organization plans to host events throughout February, including more bachata dance classes.

“Anything we can do to embed healthy living in families, we’re going to do it,” Barnett said.