Anti-violence activist Diane Latiker (pictured) was excited the other day as she showed a visitor around her modest one-story headquarters in the heart of the Roseland community on Chicago South Side.
She’s excited about providing a free Thanksgiving Dinner to teens on Saturday, November 17, at Christian Fenger Academy High School. Latiker plans to do so through her 9-year-old nonprofit, Kids Off the Block, which last year served more than 500 teens and their families, she told NewsOne. Besides donations, families throughout the community plan to prepare meals for the event.
“Last year, Isiah Thomas donated turkeys,” the Mother of eight beamed as she mentioned the retired NBA player. “We fed so many children and their families. It was great. I started it five years ago because so many kids were coming to me and telling me they didn’t have Thanksgiving Dinner. We hope to beat last year’s numbers.”
Her excitement outshines the harsh glare of the reality of her community, which has high-unemployment and poverty rates. The community, known as the “Wild 100s,” is one of the South Side areas where President Barack Obama cut his teeth on organizing in the 1980s.
This year, the Wild 100s helped pave the way for Chicago by delivering its 450th homicide of 2012, according to RedEye Chicago, which tracks homicides in the city. The city outpaced last year’s toll of 444 killings during the same period.
The violence is propelled in part by members of cliques, the new face of gangs who navigate their turf by overtaking blocks and corners instead of commanding large territories. Amid the crackle of gunfire, they kill for turf on pockmarked blocks awash in subprime housing and trash-strewn vacant lots. If innocent victims get caught in the crosshairs, well, that is just par for the course. These disaffected youth bypass school and so-called 9-to-5 jobs for drug dealing because they think the money is better.
But Latiker, who has lived in the community for 24 years, is undeterred by the statistics.
That is why she is serving Thanksgiving Dinner at Fenger High School. It is a symbolic expression of not giving in to the cleaving violence of the community. Fenger was burned in to the nation’s conscious following the 2009 videotaped beating death of Derrion Albert, a sophomore.
Watch news coverage of Albert’s sad ending here:
“We don’t have to give in to the violence,” said Latiker.
Since its inception, she says that her charity has served as a safe haven for youth seeking shelter away from the violence of the community. The group provides tutoring mentoring, and training in drama, music and sports, among other things. Mostly during the summer months, she travels with the teens to help them escape sweltering heat and violence. For older teens, she helps with job-readiness training, including computer skills.
Over the years, she has won accolades for her work. Latiker was featured on ABC’s “Secret Millionaire,” where Chicago-area businessman Steve Kaplan volunteered at the charity for a week and he built basketball courts for the group. In 2011, she was named a CNN Hero.
Watch CNN shining a light on her work here:
“I don’t do this for publicity,” the former hairstylist said. “I started in my living room with 10 kids from the neighborhood, one being youngest daughter, Aisha, and her nine friends. Last year, we served 301 kids. Over the years, we have served 2,000 kids.”
At her Kids Off the Block headquarters, a steady stream of students, parents, and mentors rambled in and out of the charity, whose blue and white painted walls and fluorescent lighting are reminiscent of an elementary school classroom. Some youth, who streamed in after school, worked at one of five desktop computers. The heat was not on because of nonpayment, she told NewsOne, but it did not seem to dampen her spirits or anyone else’s for that matter. A battered door, whose glass was held together by duct tape, is protected with a full-length wrought iron gate.
For Ronald Staggers, 23, a youth worker, his mission at Kids Off the Block is clear.
“I’ve lived in Roseland all 23 years of my life,” he said. “It’s very rough. I have friends who have been shot and killed. I have friends who have been in jail. I’ve got friends in college and those who have graduated. I’ve seen pretty much some of everything. Right now, I feel like my role is to prevent my peers from going south. It’s easy to get involved in guns, drugs, and things of that nature, but I want to shed light on alternatives like college and becoming an entrepreneur.”
Latiker’s daughter, Aisha, 22, who works as a youth organizer, said the charity is important, in fact, urgent because there was a point in her life when she was attending a friend’s funeral each week.
In 2007, after the death of Blair Holt — another senseless death that was seared in to national conscious — the charity created a stone memorial to pay tribute to the lost lives in the community. Holt, a high school student, was shot and killed on a CTA bus while defending a friend on his way home from school. He was caught in the crossfire, after a 14-year-old stepped on the bus, sprayed it with gunfire, and jumped off, injuring some and killing Holt.
“I went to school with Blair Holt at [Percy] Julian High School,” Aisha said. “We started out with 10 headstones for teens who were killed across Chicago. A month later, it was 25. A couple months later, it was almost past 50. Now we have about 300 stones and we’re behind. We’ve had to reconstruct the memorial six times now. It’s like it’s making an impact on the community, but at the same time it keeps growing.
“So it’s like what can we really do to show that we are basically killing each other?” Aisha continued. “I feel hopeless, but at the same time what my mom is doing with us behind her, I feel there is a type of home that we can come together not to stop the violence, but to slow it down a little bit. It hurts me to see how immune my generation is to this violence.”
But Latiker is more optimistic, especially as she gears up to serve Thanksgiving Dinner. Even though staffers and students wore their coats indoors as the temperature hovered around 40 degrees, Latiker is not worried about the heat just yet. She said the charity has struggled with costs this year after the city and state cut funding to overcome budget shortfalls.
“If the doors of this center close, I will take it back to my house, which is right next door,” she said, laughing. “I have no problem with that. My husband might, but I don’t!”