Grandma Invites Chicago Gang Members Inside for Serving of Hope

Filed under: In The News, Amazing Parents

On the gritty, gang-filled streets of Chicago's Roseland neighborhood, a grandma has launched a one-woman campaign against drugs and violence by inviting troubled youth into her home where she serves up kindness, compassion and food.

They call her "Ms. Diane," and, in the last year alone, she has helped more than 300 at-risk teens in one of Chicago's most blighted and gang-infested neighborhoods, according to the website for her nonprofit organization, Kids Off the Block.

In a neighborhood where residents lock themselves inside their homes to escape rampant gang violence, Diane Latiker opens her door, inviting gang members to come inside, CNN, which recently featured her as a CNN Hero, reports.

"They say I'm a nut because I let kids into my home who I didn't even know," Latiker, 54, a mom of eight and grandmother of 13, tells CNN. "But I know (the kids) now. And I'll know the new generation."

Latiker writes on her site that her mother, Evangelist Ruth Jackson, told her to "do something with the youth."

That moment, she says, transformed her and gave her a new mission in life.

In 2003, Latiker was concerned her youngest daughter, Aisha, a high school student, would fall into a gang, since gang members lived next door.

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

That's when she launched the community program Kids Off the Block, with the hope that by providing teens who have been in trouble with support and a place to go, she could bring new hope to a community in crisis.

The program started in her living room, but during the following years "my house started bursting at the seams," she tells CNN.

"It doesn't matter where they come from, what they've done," Latiker tells the network. "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."

The South Side neighborhood where Latiker runs her crusade has been hit hard by the recession, and even more so by gun violence. With just one month left in the school year, 118 youth already have been shot in Chicago public schools, according to Chicago Talks.

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

Latiker told the kids her house was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They could come over for food, help with their homework or just to talk about their hopes, dreams and fears, she tells CNN.

"I invited them into my living room," she tells the network. "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."

Eventually, Latiker quit her job as a cosmetologist to focus on the kids full-time. Through the KOB Youth Community Center, she has set up tutoring sessions with teachers and retired educators and has 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.

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 percent of those in the program are male, Latiker tells CNN. 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, CNN reports.

Gilchrist joined a gang when he was 12, and tells the network life in a gang meant looking behind his back every day.

"We always used to jump on people, rob everything, steal," he tells CNN. "Miss Diane, she changed my life. I love her for that."

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.