by Diane Latiker
After eight children, 13 grandchildren, and two husbands, I was blessed with a passion that fills my soul. My mom raised me to be independent, married or not. She taught me to always stand for something or fall for everything. I took the message literally. The problem was that I was a people pleaser – you know, the one who cannot be happy without others being happy. I stood for everyone’s well being, never giving a thought to my dreams, hopes, or goals in life.
At 46 years old everything changed. My mother mentioned that the kids in the neighborhood liked me, even respected me, and that I should do something with them.
I have lived in Roseland, on the Far South Side of Chicago, for 25 years. I first came to this community when I was 15 years old in 1971. Roseland was the most beautiful place I had ever seen; I thought I was in paradise. Trees, green grass, and flowers were everywhere. There was no trash and homes were well-kept. Roseland had its own “downtown” on Michigan Avenue. The streets were lined with stores, restaurants, and anything else a family could need.
Forty-one years later, all that has changed. Due to “white flight,” Roseland is almost 98 percent black. Manufacturing jobs have left the area and businesses have closed. Not a day or night goes by without the sound of police cars, fire trucks, ambulances, or helicopters. Gunshots are commonplace. Driving around the community one sees a lot of abandoned homes, vacant lots, trash, homelessness, and people standing on corners.
When I began to get involved with the children from my neighborhood, something happened. I started to feel vibrant, useful, giving. My spirit uplifted as the young people strolled into my apartment every day. They relied on me to guide, teach, listen, love, care, nurture, and discipline them.
Youth in Roseland face violence daily. There are not enough recreation facilities or social activities. Schools have few or no resources. There are no job training facilities, and churches do not open their doors to young people because they fear them. According to the Chicago Police Department, gun violence killed 70 children of school age last year. More than 600 were wounded.
Youth graduating from elementary school are more likely to read below 4th grade, and the same goes for math. By the time they reach high school, they are so embarrassed by their illiteracy that they drop out. Many children of Roseland live in single-parent homes, while grandparents raise the majority. Others raise themselves.
Some of Chicago’s most notorious street gangs have members in Roseland. Many of these gangs splintered from a Chicago gang known as the Black Gangster Disciples. The summer of 2012 saw murder rates increase by 38 percent. Over 80 percent of those killed were youth aged 25 and under.
The violence has caused neighbors to stop communicating, so even when a young person can finally buy a car, he or she can only drive within a four-block radius. It is “tragic,” as the youth say.
As I listened to each kid’s story, I felt compelled to help. The more they spoke, the more needed I felt. Each day became an adventure, and I would stay up nights thinking of ways to make their days better and more uplifting. Then they started bringing their friends.
The kids were telling their friends about this “lady,” and it dawned on me that that “lady” was me. “Hey Ms. Diane,” they would say. My heart would fill up with joy at the thought that they depended on me to provide safety, to care for them. It was an amazing feeling.
My neighbors began to notice all the kids hanging out at my house. Even some of my own children began to question my decision to bring the kids into my home. My husband asked me, “Are you crazy? We can’t take care of all these children.” It did not help that I had sold the family television – his television – to support this endeavor. I could not explain it to any of them, but I knew I could not stop. In the meantime, more kids were coming, so I moved all the furniture out of our dining room. I bought used computers with the television money so the kids could study and do homework. It almost cost me another divorce, so I promised my husband I would not touch anything else if he just stayed.
Then I noticed there were over 50 youth in my house, and they were coming every day of the week. Some came or called in the middle of the night or early in the morning. They were even coming to sit on my porch just to wait until I came out. Those who were getting thrown out of their houses and needed a place to stay for a couple of days would sleep on my floor. My husband and I would wash their clothes, feed them, and take them back and forth to school.
Amazingly, when my family saw how serious I was and how happy I was, they began to pitch in. We bought shoes, coats, hats, and scarves, and in the blink of an eye, there were 75 youth. My husband and I moved everything out of a bedroom, solicited used music equipment and made it into a studio for them to make music. That was when he put his foot down. “Diane, we are not going any further. I need my bedroom!” I complied as long as he stayed.
Neighbors were not so pleasant, saying things like “old lady in a shoe, got so many children she didn’t know what to do.” They called the police on me a couple of times, but there was something in me that would not let me stop and I knew what it was. The young people! They really believed in me, and they proved it by showing me they could do it. They got back in school, got out of gangs, stopped fighting, and were so happy when their grades started improving. They became empowered, all because I opened my home. And I was having the time of my life. They made me laugh, cry, think, create, and feel validated. It was an awesome feeling, and by that point, nothing could stop me.
I took my newfound euphoria out into the community to share it with others. I told them about the kids in my home and asked for assistance. Again I was naïve, thinking everyone would want to help. I shared the same message everywhere I went, and soon it began to sink in. The neighbors began to look at me differently, and some even offered their help. I was making progress. Each year, more and more people reached out to support my vision. After much exposure and 2,000 youth later, I can honestly say that this is the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life.
Certainly, the “Power of I” is the power of us all. Collectively we change things, but individually we plant the seed of change. I am glad I was one of those chosen to be a part of so many inspiring lives, to earn their trust and respect. I am fulfilled and leave you with this thought:
“Our day begins to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
• Ice Cube introduces 2011 Top 10 CNN Hero Diane Latiker at “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute.” •
About the Author: Diane Latiker is a mother of eight, a grandmother of 13, and a resident of the Roseland community on the Far South Side of Chicago, IL. She is also the founder and president of Kids Off The Block, a non-profit organization that provides at-risk low income youth with a positive alternative to gangs, truancy, violence and the juvenile justice system. Diane believes that through forms of compassion, love, and guidance this generation can be led to discovering a spectrum of opportunities and become positive leaders in our communities. She is a 2011 Top 10 CNN Hero.