Gang violence threatened his life. Now he’s saving the lives of at-risk youth.

Will Keeps

After he was left for dead in a gang fight, Will Keeps turned his life around and now he’s doing the same for at-risk youth. Hear how he’s using hip-hop to motivate kids to finish high school and see why everyone in Des Moines is in his corner, including the Chief of Police.

Starts Right Here with Will Keeps
Starts Right Here with Will Keeps
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Starts Right Here


Will Keeps

Will Keeps grew up on the south side of Chicago with an abusive stepfather. Lacking a positive role model, he became a member of the Blackstones gang at 13. In his 20s, Will began to mentor with ManUp Iowa to support youth and encourage positive life choices. Now a husband and father, Will composes and performs R&B and rap music to help youth avoid the path he walked. He personally raised $1M to launch Starts Right Here, a facility with programming designed to educate, equip and empower at-risk youth. Will has produced several music videos featuring Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, Police Chief Dana Wingert, and Pastor Al Perez. The objective of these videos is to lessen the divide between urban citizens and leadership.

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What makes them Fantastic?

Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert believes Will is the first person in the city to create a successful program for at-risk youth. Dozens of young people who had or were about to drop out of school, have now finished their high school degree through participation in Starts Right Here (SRH). Will and his team use novel approaches to reach youth through music and cinematography that provoke dialogue and solution-driven outcomes. Will relates to these students given his own tumultuous teen years and understands their needs to heal, learn and thrive.

Starts Right Here

Reflections from Andrea

Will Keeps’ deep desire is to provide a safe space for at risk youth to receive mental health, spiritual and educational resources. He knows first-hand how the trajectory of someone’s life is dramatically changed when safety and emotional support are lacking. Ala said it well when he mentioned the “body comfort” he experiences at Starts Right Here. He told me he felt at home and he didn’t have to worry. For many of Will’s students, simply having a physical place to call home is non-existent. Just think about that for a moment. What if you didn’t know where you were going to sleep tonight or get something to eat. Studying for a test at school would be the least of your worries. Will says that “when a student’s outside world is messed up, their focus is survival.”

Maria was so articulate about how she felt about the shooting at her school. She described a dark place and feeling pushed into a corner; feelings so intense that she attempted suicide. Before her experience at Starts Right Here, I’m not sure Maria would have had awareness of her feelings let alone the ability to express them so well. In reflecting on my time with Will, I have learned the importance of conversation, both talking and listening. This sounds so simple, but I would suggest many of us are not truly present in the vast majority of conversations we have each day. If I’m not tuned into the words, inflection, facial expression and physical demeanor of the person I’m interviewing, I’ll likely miss important details or not ask a follow-up question that reveals deep insight.

Every episode exposes a belief held by our guest that can stand on its own as a really big, game-changing concept. Will is fully committed to making progress for the benefit of his community. And he tells us that we can’t let disagreements stop progress. He is incredibly clear that we can ALWAYS find points of agreement and move forward. Will demonstrates his philosophy everyday with students, politicians, donors, friends and family. I’ve taken his approach to heart. 


Since producing Will’s episode, the school experienced a great tragedy. Two pairs of SRH students (each pair from a rival gang) had been feuding both in-person and on social media. One of those students arrived at school armed and shot and murdered his two rival classmates. Will was also shot (not intentionally) and has since recovered. I learned of the shooting within an hour and it appeared on national news that evening. I waited several hours, which seemed like days, before calling Will’s wife. How could this violence penetrate the walls of a safe place designed to help at-risk youth? I was worried Will would feel defeated or worse yet fearful. I should have known better! He’s more committed than ever to educate the community about why violence occurs and what can be done to stop it. God bless Will Keeps!


Will Keeps

For more information about Starts Right Here or to donate:

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