Her smile is infectious, her spirit is inspiring. Diane Latiker has changed the lives of thousands of boys in one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods.
“It started in my home in 2003 with 9 kids from the neighborhood,” Latiker said.
In 2003, Latiker was looking forward to an empty nest after raising eight children, the first of whom was born when Latiker was 16. Her youngest was 13 with friends who needed to escape the Roseland neighborhood’s violence. Latiker opened her door to them and has never shut it.
“Next thing I know I have kids sleeping on my dining room floor, homeless kids, I have kids trying to get out of the gangs,” she said.
In her modest two-flat, Latiker got rid of furniture to make room for more kids and sold TVs to buy computers to help boys with homework. Her “Kids Off The Block” program was born and expanded with a summer basketball program. In 16 years, over 3,000 kids have cycled through, including Joel Q. The 25-year-old college graduate is now a teacher.
“She taught me how to be a leader of my community, first and foremost, and from there gave me a moral foundation,” he said.
Calling her “Miss D,” current Kids Off the Block teens said Latiker has given them happiness and hope for the future.
“Knowing you can come to a place and be safe and have fun and be around a lot of love changes a lot,” participant Denzel Russell said.
“She made me realize I’m going to take some wins and losses, just keep pushing and don’t give up,” participant Daqwon Hargrove said.
And there have been losses. Some of the program’s kids have been victims of gun violence. They are remembered with Latiker’s homemade cinderblock memorial along with dozens of other Chicago teens killed in the last few years. Latiker has also been a target of violence.
“I’ve been between two guns, literally,” Latiker said. “I had a AK-47 pulled on me with 50 kids behind me.”
But none of it deters the remarkable 62-year-old. Saving one kid from the streets is enough for Latiker to keep her door open as long as she is able.
The kids in her program say there is no one else like Diane Latiker, but she says she is not unique. A humble Latiker says there are many more like her in Chicago doing good work, they just need to be supported with resources.