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Grandmother helping Chicago kids 'off the block'

By Allie Torgan, CNN
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CNN Hero: Diane Latiker
  • Diane Latiker is reaching out to young people in her troubled Chicago neighborhood
  • "Kids Off the Block" provides recreational activities and valuable life skills
  • Latiker urges others in the community to listen to children and help them when possible
  • Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2011 CNN Heroes

Chicago (CNN) -- In Roseland, one of Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods, many residents stay off the streets to protect themselves from rampant gang violence.

But one grandmother opened her door and invited gang members to come inside.

"They say I'm a nut because I let kids into my home who I didn't even know," said Diane Latiker, 54. "But I know (the kids) now. And I'll know the new generation."

Since 2003, Latiker has gotten to know more than 1,500 young people through her nonprofit community program, Kids Off the Block. And she hopes that by providing them with support and a place to go, she is also bringing hope to a community in crisis.

"We are losing a generation to violence," said Latiker, who started the program in her living room.

According to Chicago Public Schools, 140 of its students have been shot since the school year started in September.

"How can a kid get a gun like he can get a pack of gum? It's that crazy," Latiker said.

Latiker, a mother of eight and grandmother to 13, has lived in Roseland for 22 years. She said she was once "young and dumb," dropping out of high school and having seven children by age 25. But she said that by 36, she had turned her life around: She got remarried and earned her GED. She had also given birth to her eighth child, Aisha.

This time, she said, she was determined to do things right.

Diane Latiker, 54, has become a mentor for local youth in her Chicago neighborhood.
Diane Latiker, 54, has become a mentor for local youth in her Chicago neighborhood.

But when Aisha became a teenager in 2003, Latiker worried that Aisha and her friends would fall in with a gang. After all, gang members lived next door, and there weren't many safe things for teenagers to do.

"I started taking (Aisha and her friends) to swimming and movies and whatever," Latiker said. "My mother saw that, and she said: 'Diane, why don't you do something with the kids? They like you and respect you.' "

Latiker was hesitant at first. She wanted to focus on being a grandmother and rebuilding her relationships with her older children. But after thinking and praying about it, she decided to make use of the natural rapport she had with young people.

"I invited them into my living room," she said. "They all started saying: 'I want to be a doctor. I want to be a rapper. I want to be a singer.' They didn't want to be out here running up and down the street. They wanted to be involved in something."

Latiker told them her house was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They could come over for food, or homework help, or just to talk about their hopes, dreams and fears. Kids Off the Block was born.

"It doesn't matter where they come from, what they've done," Latiker said. "We've had six gangs in my living room at one time. ... But that was the safe place. And you know what? They respected that."

As Latiker began to see positive change in many of the kids, she quit her job as a cosmetologist to focus on them full-time. She set up tutoring sessions with teachers and retired educators. She provided job interview training and opportunities to play football, basketball and soccer. Latiker and volunteers also started taking the kids on field trips to museums, movies, skating rinks, water parks and professional sports games.

Video: Memorial to 'shock community'
  • Gang Violence
  • Chicago
  • Mentoring

In 2004, the group started traveling to other cities across the country, including Detroit and St. Louis, so they could talk to the young people living there.

The experiences "let them know there is something beyond their block," Latiker said.

Latiker has also made many personal sacrifices along the way. She sold the family television to put extra money into the program, and she gave away her dining room set to make room for a computer station.

"We moved into the dining room, and then we moved into one of my bedrooms," she said. "(At one point) there were 75 young people in my three rooms."

Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2011 CNN Heroes

In 2008, just when Latiker thought her home would burst at the seams, some potential donors came to her home for a visit. Impressed, several of them pooled their money to buy a bus for the program. But a few days later, Latiker learned the building next door was for sale -- for the same price as the bus.

"I prayed about it and finally called the donors and asked if the money for the bus could be spent on the building next door instead," Latiker said.

Her prayers were answered. The building was hers, and Kids Off the Block opened the doors of its new home on July 15, 2010.

"We call it The KOB Youth Community Center, and we invite everyone -- all of the youth in the community -- to come," she said.

With 301 members from Roseland, Latiker said the center has brought community outreach to "a whole new level." Every day, 30 to 50 young people show up at the center for tutoring, counseling or activities such as sports, drama, dance or music.

"KOB" caters to people age 11 to 24, but 80% of those in the program are male, Latiker said. She emphasizes activities that target males because they are most often perpetrating or confronting the violence of the streets.

Maurice Gilchrist, 15, is one teenager who credits Kids Off the Block with turning his life around. Gilchrist joined a gang when he was 12, and he says life in a gang meant looking behind his back every day.

"We always used to jump on people, rob everything, steal," he said.

Gilchrist discovered Kids Off the Block when he went to Latiker's house after school with a friend, Latiker's grandson. There, Gilchrist connected with others his age, ate pizza, did his homework, and talked with Latiker, who invited him to join the group.

Today, Gilchrist's grades have improved and he has set his sights on playing football in college. Without Latiker and her program, "I would be locked up, (or) dead, somewhere beat up, in a hospital," he said. "You name it, I would be there.

"Miss Diane, she changed my life. I love her for that."

For Latiker, opening up her door was the first step toward change. And she hopes other people will follow her lead.

"If we came outside, we could change so many things," she said. "This community -- if it was once vibrant and safe -- how did it get to this point? Because people started going inside."

To help "shock the community" into action, Latiker set up a stone memorial in front of the community center for all the young people who have lost their lives to violence since 2007. There are 220 stones lining the memorial, each representing a victim, and Latiker said they are still 150 stones behind.

Through her efforts, Latiker has become a voice for local youth and she wishes more people would take the time to listen to them.

"Our young people need help," Latiker said. "All of them are not gang-bangers. All of them are not dropouts. But the ones that are, they need our help. Somehow or another, something ain't right here. And why don't we ask them about it?"

Want to get involved? Check out the Kids Off the Block website at and see how to help.