Will Keeps was a 15-year-old Chicago gang member when he saw rival members kill his friend. He escaped the streets and moved to Iowa to help other young people from difficult backgrounds.
Now, Keeps is hospitalized and in critical condition from precisely the kind of violence he’s dedicated his life to stopping: a shooting that killed two teenagers from the Starts Right Here education program he founded in Des Moines. Keeps was also shot in Monday’s attack, who police said was gang-related, and underwent surgery.
Keeps, 49, is a rapper and activist whose first name is William Holmes. He launched Starts Right Here in 2021 and partners with Des Moines public schools to help children who might otherwise have fallen through the cracks in the education system. One of Keeps’ songs, “Wake Up Iowa,” sends a message: “You don’t have to do illegal things. You don’t have to kill someone just to feel tough.”
School principals and police all agree that the shooting won’t stop the program — or Keeps.
“Amazing. Incredibly passionate. Creative,” said interim superintendent of schools Matt Smith. “He has the biggest heart for the children and for our community: he is a fierce advocate of justice and student service. He is a genuine man. He is really a good man.
Preston Walls, 18, a participant in the program, was charged Tuesday with two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder and one count of participating in a criminal gang. Police said the killings of 18-year-old Gionni Dameron and 16-year-old Rashad Carr were gang-related, although Dameron’s father said his son was not involved in a gang and Carr’s friends told the Des Moines Register that he wasn’t in a gang, either. Walls is being held on $1 million bail, and the public defender’s office handling his case 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 the age of 13.
Two years later, after rival gang members killed his friend, they aimed the gun at Keeps, but it jammed, he said. So they cut him up, beat him with baseball bats, and left him for dead.
He survived and moved to Des Moines when he was 20 years old.
“We owe it to our children to create a world where young people don’t experience the challenges, barriers and problems that I have experienced,” Keeps said in the profile.
“Will has a huge heart for kids,” Brian Herbel, vice chairman of the board at Starts Right Here, said in an email. “He has made it his life’s mission to help lost children and is like a father figure to many of them. He’s able to connect with the kids because he’s had his own troubled past and he’s over it.
Keeps has an unmistakable presence and passion, Smith said, even though he’s soft-spoken except for his laugh.
“You can hear it all the way down the hall,” Smith said. “He’s very sharp. You don’t even know what he’s laughing at, but you can’t help but laugh with him.
Get Started Right Here is funded by grants and donors. Some students are referred to the program by the school district. Others are sent by their parents.
The program manages two tracks. One is for students 17 and 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 environment. All told, Start Right Here serves around 40 students.
The program fills a void, Smith said.
“Students and families just felt lost,” Smith said. “They felt like they couldn’t find their footing in our education system and the Des Moines public schools, and in connecting with Will, they felt a different kind of focus, a different kind of attention, and experienced an incredible success”.
The show’s Facebook feed is filled with some of these success stories, and Keeps sometimes brags about them on their social media. In a tweet last spring, she posed with a student squirming in the virtual school after the COVID-19 hit. “She gave up,” she said, until she tried Start right here. Now: “GRADED!” she proclaimed.
The Starts Right Here website claims that 70% of the students it serves are members of minority groups. Thirty attendees have graduated from high school, the district said, and five more are on track to graduate this spring.
No previous violence has occurred at the school, Smith said. But Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, said programs that serve at-risk students need to be especially vigilant.
“If you are enrolling someone who has had a history of extensive criminal misconduct, it is up to school officials to take additional steps to provide a tighter level of oversight,” he said.
The doors to the program are always closed, Smith said. He wasn’t sure if the guards were there on Monday. The program offers classes only in the morning; many students do afternoon internships at companies. The shooting happened just before 1pm. Authorities did not say who else, if anyone, was in the building at the time.
Police said the shooting was premeditated. Walls was on probation for a gun charge last year and she was wearing an ankle monitor, which she cut off 16 minutes before the shooting, police said.
Investigators say in a charging document that Walls had a concealed semi-automatic pistol with a high-capacity extended magazine when he entered a common area. Keeps tried to escort him out, but Walls walked away, drew his gun and shot the two teenagers multiple times, the document said. Keeps was also affected.
A teenage victim tried to flee, according to the document, but Walls chased him “and shot him multiple times.” Walls was captured a short time later.
Keeps’ family said in a statement Tuesday that he “has a long recovery ahead of him” but is determined to continue his mission to help at-risk youth.
Supporters understand the challenges Keeps faces.
Police Chief Dana Wingerts, who serves on the Starts Right Here board, said in a statement Wednesday that it was particularly tragic that the violence occurred in a place Keeps created to “provide hope and opportunity for some of the our youngest in need”. .”
Wingerts has left no doubt that he expects Keeps to recover.
“Concerning as it is, it would be a mistake to underestimate the passion and energy he will bring to this important work after his recovery,” Wingerts said.
Hollingsworth reported from Kansas City, Missouri. Salter reported from O’Fallon, Missouri. Associated Press reporters Scott McFetridge in Des Moines and Trisha Ahmed in Washington contributed to this report.