Youth program founder hurt in shooting ‘has biggest heart’

Will Keeps was a 15-year-old member of a Chicago gang when he witnessed rival members kill his friend. He escaped the streets and moved to Iowa to help other young people from troubled backgrounds.

Now, Keeps is hospitalized and in serious condition following just the sort of violence he has devoted his life to stopping: a shooting that killed two teenagers at the Starts Right Here education program he founded in Des Moines. Keeps was also shot in Monday’s attack, which police say was gang-related, and underwent surgery.

Starts Right Here

Photo courtesy of Starts Right Here Facebook

Keeps, 49, is a rapper and activist whose given name is William Holmes. He launched Starts Right Here in 2021 and partners with Des Moines Public Schools to help kids who are otherwise falling through the cracks of the educational system. One of Keeps’ songs, “Wake Up Iowa,” sends a message, “You don’t gotta do illegal stuff, you don’t gotta kill somebody just to feel tough.”

School leaders and police all agree the shooting won’t stop the program — or Keeps.

“Amazing. Incredibly passionate. Creative,” interim schools Superintendent Matt Smith said. “Has the biggest heart for kids and for our community — is a fierce advocate for justice and for serving students. He’s a genuine man. He’s a really good man.”

Preston Walls, 18, a program participant, was charged Tuesday with two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder and one count of criminal gang participation. Police said the killings of 18-year-old Gionni Dameron and 16-year-old Rashad Carr were gang-related, though Dameron’s father said his son was not involved in a gang, and Carr’s friends said he was not in a gang, either. Walls is jailed on $1 million bond, and the public defender’s office handling his case has declined to comment.

In a LinkedIn profile, Keeps said he was 7 when he was sexually abused by his stepfather. Confused and angry, he ended up in a Chicago gang at age 13.

Two years later, after rival gang members killed his friend, they pointed the gun at Keeps, but it jammed, he said. So they cut him, beat him with baseball bats and left him for dead.

He survived and moved to Des Moines in his 20s.

“We owe it to our children to create a world where youth do not experience the challenges, barriers, and issues that I did,” Keeps said in the profile.

“Will has a huge heart for kids,” Brian Herbel, vice president of the Starts Right Here Board of Directors, said in an email. “He has made it his life’s mission to help lost kids and is like a father figure for many of them. He is able to connect with the kids because he had his own troubled past and has overcome it.”

Starts Right Here operates two tracks. One is for students 17 or older who have accumulated very few credits and helps them catch up so they can graduate. The second track is for students who have difficulty staying focused in a traditional school setting. All told, Starts Right Here serves about 40 students.

The program fills a void, Smith said.

“Students and families just felt lost,” Smith said. “They just felt like they couldn’t find their footing in our education system and Des Moines Public Schools, and in connecting with Will, they felt a different sort of focus, a different sort of attention, and found incredible success.”

The Starts Right Here website says 70% of the students it serves are members of minority groups. Thirty participants have graduated from high school, the district said, and five others are on track to graduate this spring.

Categories: Iowa News