Diane Latiker’s initial reaction to Chicago’s record-setting 500-plus murders in 2012 was to weep uncontrollably. And yet, in the end it proved a good cry for the 55-year-old mother of eight and grandmother to 13.
For as much as she was bemoaning all the violence and dysfunction that has now overtaken far too many neighborhood street corners in her beloved hometown, Latiker was also reflecting on the thousands upon thousands of young souls she’s aided in escaping the ranks of such dubious distinction over the last decade by virtue of her Kids Off the Block not-for-profit that traces its roots to the doorsteps of her living room.
In all, some 506 homicides were recorded in 2012, the most in any one year since 2008 and the second highest annual total in more than a decade. Compared to 2011, slayings were up by nearly 20 percent and in 87 percent of all those episodes the victim died at the hands of a firearm. On New Year’s Day, another three people were killed and at least a dozen others wounded in mostly brazen attacks.
So desperate to stop or, at the very least, curb some of the carnage are city officials just six-months ago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and Police Commissioner Garry McCarthy moved in tandem to align CPD in a revolutionary partnership with Ceasefire Illinois, an anti-crime and violence organization primarily composed of ex-felons now dedicated to preventing the proliferation of gangs and violence throughout urban communities.
Largely based on the strength of a $1 million grant from the city, the group placed 20 workers in so-called “hotspot” areas across the city, all with the central responsibility of mediating gang conflicts and preventing more shootings.
All the while, Diane Latiker continues to operate as a force of one, her word essentially serving as her most protective shield. Back in 2003 she made the simple promise to her then 13-year-old daughter that she would do all she could to again make the streets of their Roseland neighborhood home safe enough for her and her friends to feel they could freely come and go. Since then, seemingly every one of the more than 2,000 teens that have now passed through KOB doors will tell you she’s never gone deviated from that commitment.
From day one, Latiker, who soon quit her job as a hair dresser, let her kids know her home was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and at any point they could come over for food, to do homework, to talk or just feel safe. At times, the battle has been as hard as, well, what you might expect of one daring to attempt such an exhaustive overall.
On the strength of the financial backings of some of her most ardent supporters, KOB purchased the one-story building next to her home back in July of 2010 and it now serves as its ground zero. Serving youths aged 11 to 24, mentoring, tutoring and training in such disciplines as drama, music and sports are now all part of its daily agenda.
During summer months, Latiker often accompanies her youngsters on trips to other cities where they converse with other teens about similar growing pains and how best to overcome them. For older teens, her days are likewise spent aiding in job-readiness training and teaching such skills as computer literacy.
“I don’t do this for publicity,” said the feisty matriarch whose efforts nonetheless have been saluted by such outlets as CNN, where she was tabbed in 2011 as one of its Heroes of the Year. “How can a kid get a gun like he can get a pack of gum? It’s that crazy.”
That’s the Diane Latiker way, as much as any other single principle, she chooses to preach the understanding, internalization and embracement of an unabashed sense of worthiness to her kids.
“We’ve had six gangs in my living room at one time, as many as 75 kids in three rooms” she once reflected to CNN. “They said I was nuts because I let kids into my home I didn’t know. But I’ll know the new generation. It doesn’t matter where they come from, what they’ve done. This was a safe place and they respected that.”
So enriched has Latiker become through her experiences she recently felt empowered enough to pen a letter to President Obama where she graciously urged him to “make disconnected youth a priority” and “create avenues and resources within our communities” to combat youth violence.
“Mr. President, she continued, “as I watched you on election night say to the young boy on the South Side of Chicago who sees a life beyond the nearest street corner, I was so happy that you were thinking about those young people, that you know they exist… We need your help Mr. President.”
In the meanwhile, Diane Latiker will keep on keeping on with what she now views as her life’s work. Despite the building’s heat being turned off for nonpayment, Latiker tirelessly toiled over the last month to provide holiday meals to teens and community folk. She says she started the program more than five years ago when kids began coming to her and telling her they had no other means of securing such holiday trimmings.
And as for Aisha, the now 22-year-old daughter who sparked Diane Latiker into taking her life-altering stance, she herself now works as a KOB youth organizer. “It hurts me to see how immune my generation is to this violence,” she told Newone. “I feel hopeless, but at the same time what my mom is doing with us behind us, I feel there is a type of home that we can come together not to stop the violence, but slow it down a little bit.”
All through Roseland, testimonials of equal levels of compassion and heartwarming depths are readily heard when it comes to assessing the works of “Miss Diane.”
“She changed my life and I love her for that,” 15-year-old Maurice Gilchrist told CNN last year of the impact Latiker has had on his life. At age 12, he joined a gang and confesses to “always jumping on people” and “robbing everything.”
Three years late,r he wandered by Latiker’s home and less than a year later had improved his grades to the point of being able to try out for the school football team and setting his sights on attending college. “I would be locked up or dead,” he says of his life without such divine intervention. “Somewhere beat up in a hospital. You name it, I would be there.”
More than 80 percent of the programs now offered by KOB are geared toward males like Gilchrist with Latiker reasoning that the primary motivation behind that is since they are the ones most likely to be perpetrating or confronting street violence that also renders them most vulnerable to it.
Walk the streets of Roseland these days and most every male teen you encounter knows of Latiker and what she stands for, easily branding her as one of the neighborhood institutions they now find it hardest to live without.
Not to worry, chimes Latiker: “If the doors of this center close, I will take it back to my house. I have no problem with that. My husband might, but I don’t,” she laughed.
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.