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.”