When the worst happened to Minneapolis, people rushed to help.

Not everyone stayed to help.

"When a crisis happens in America, we run to the rescue. Everybody runs to the rescue," said Will Wallace. "But then I had to say to myself, what's the aftermath? Who's going to keep it going?"

Wallace, director of youth programs at Emerge Community Development in north Minneapolis, stood in a room crowded with everything his neighbors might need to make it through the week. Cans of soup, bags of onions, stacks of cleaning products and diapers, warm clothes, school supplies.

These were the sort of donations that came flooding in over the summer, piling high at drop-off sites between the shattered grocery stores and burned-out gas stations along Broadway. Volunteers showed up with brooms to sweep broken glass off the sidewalks; people brought gift cards at struggling shops and donated to North Side nonprofits. But public attention shifted to the next crisis of 2020 and the one after that and the one after that.

The North Side needed someone needed to keep the work going. Will Wallace had the workforce.

"I played a big part in north Minneapolis gang violence, gun violence," said Markess Wilkins, 25, one of the young men in Wallace's North 4 program who's made helping the North Side his job.

"I feel like it's mandatory for me to give back to my community."

Wallace founded North 4 to steer older teens and young adults away from gangs and the streets and into paid internships, classes, peer support and careers. When the pandemic hit, the internships Wallace had lined up for 2020 started to vanish as offices emptied and budgets drained. Then came Memorial Day, and George Floyd's death under a policeman's knee, and a new, urgent need to find these young Black men a place and a purpose.

The community was in crisis and North 4 had a team of bright, able workers in need of a job. "The world just got kind of crazy this year. It got worse," said Devin Spencer, 20, who was spending part of the afternoon at North 4 in a class on nonviolent conflict resolution.

When he first came to the program last year, Spencer said, "I was lost, I was confused. I didn't know what I was going to do. But I kept working, and it's really paying off in all types of ways. Not just economically, but spiritually and socially too."

North 4 offers a paycheck, peer support and behind it all, Will Wallace, checking in; making sure that all is well, that everyone is safe. He's on their side, at their back, checking his phone until the last 2 a.m. text lets him know that the last North 4 intern just made it home safe for the night.

"Will, that's my muscle, that's my backbone," said Wilkins, who first heard about the North 4 program from his probation officer. "I know I'm OK because I've got a strong backbone behind me."

North 4, members say, is more than a program. "It's a family," Spencer said.

Emerge lined up grants and helped secure funding the interns needed for endless supply runs for produce, meat, pantry staples, diapers. Wallace watched with pride as his team handled inventory and logistics, organized donation drives, and learned that people far outside the North Side needed their help too. People like an out-of-work suburban nurse who came to them in tears one day because she'd never had to visit a food bank before. "She was just so embarrassed," Wallace said. "Middle-class white woman, for the first time seeing a crisis hit. We told her 'Raise your head up. We're here to help.' "

Wallace and Emerge turned catastrophe into opportunity into internships.

These young men turned an internship into a vocation.

People used to ask Markess Wilkins what he wanted to do with his life, who he wanted to be in five or 10 years.

Five or 10 years ago, he didn't have an answer. He does now.

"Now it's to the point where if somebody asks me where I want to be in the next five, 10 years — I see myself taking care of the kids out there," said Wilkins, who dreams of running this program with his colleagues someday. "I know what I want to do. I want to give back to my community."

"Go ahead and take your vacation," he added, grinning over at Wallace. "You know we've got this under control. You don't gotta worry about nothing."

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008

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