Chicago Grandmother Started A Safe Haven For Kids In Her Living Room

In Diane Latiker’s mind, it’s all been about the strength and mercy of her Lord and savior. How else can you explain how a 54-year-old mother and grandmother’s most vulnerable and frightening times resulted in her most courageous stand?

Eight years ago, Latiker stood utterly petrified over the mere thought of her 13-year-old daughter simply venturing outside their far South Side Chicago home. So rampant and random was all the violence in their Roseland neighborhood that in the last four years alone nearly 400 teens have lost their lives to gang-related violence.

It led Latiker to begin erecting a stone memorial just steps from her home to commemorate all the fallen and “shock the community” into action. To date, there are some 220 stones standing, with orders for more than 150 more.

“The gangs were everywhere, even right next door,” Latiker said of her motivation to start the Kids Off the Block community program in the living room of her home in 2003. Today, the now nationally recognized program has served more than 1,500 11- to 24-year-olds and Latiker is being saluted among CNN’s Top 10 Heroes of 2011.

“People said I was crazy because I let kids into my home that I didn’t even know,” said Latiker, the mother of eight children and grandmother of 13. “How could I not? We are losing a whole generation to violence. I’ve had six gangs in my home at one time. But that was the only safe place for them to be and I found that they respected that. We were in my dining room, then we moved into my bedroom, at one time there were more than 75 young people in my three rooms.”

What Latiker also soon found is that perhaps things aren’t nearly as hopeless as they may have sometimes seemed. “It started with me taking my daughter and some of her friends to the movies, swimming or whatever,” said Latiker, who over the years has gone as far as to sell the family television to generate funds for the program.

“Soon we were meeting in my living room to talk, do homework, just to be safe,” she added. “The kids started talking about how they wanted to be doctors, singers, performers. They didn’t just want to be out there running up and down the streets.”

And the more they sensed how much Diane Latiker cared, how much she believed in them, the more they grew to have confidence in themselves.

“Miss Diane, she changed my life and I love her for that,” said Maurice Gilchrist. Now 15, Gilchrist tells the woeful tale of how he joined a gang at 12-years-old and seemed destined for a life in the streets before he just so happened upon Latiker’s overcrowded home one snowy evening.

“We always we used to jump on people, rob, whatever,” said Gilchrist, who now earns good enough grades to compete in football for his high school team and has dreams of earning a scholarship. “You name it, I would be there. Without this program, I would be locked up, dead or somewhere beat up.

Latiker, who quit her job as a cosmetologist to be on hand for the program full time, beamed as Gilchrist spoke. No matter how many times she’s heard stories like it, she always soon finds her herself dabbing at her eyes.

Learn more about Diane Latiker and the work she does with young people by visiting her HERE.

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