With Open Arms and an Open House, She Helps Keep Kids off the Block and Focused on Success
Each year, L'Oréal Paris and Points of Light recognize, celebrate and support Women of Worth who make a beautiful difference in their communities. For exceptional commitment to service, 10 honorees each receive a $10,000 grant to support their most cherished cause. One honoree, selected during the open online vote, receives an additional $25,000 grant.
A house full of your own children can be overwhelming. But what if you opened your home to other children, with sometimes more than 75 young people a day seeking safety and refuge from the perils of the streets?
That’s exactly what Diane Latiker did in 2003 in her small Chicago apartment. Starting out with nine of her daughter’s friends who were looking for a place that was safe from negative influences in the area, Latiker opened her doors and founded Kids Off The Block. Since its inception, the organization has had a positive impact on more than 3,000 young lives that otherwise might have been lost to a life of gangs and crime.
“People couldn’t understand why I was letting the kids come,” said Latiker, who was mocked by neighbors, alienated by family members, and even threatened. “I didn’t let any of that hold me back. It’s not easy to battle adversity unless you believe in the people you are battling for. But I truly believe our youth are worth the fight. So I never looked back.”
In 2003, there were few opportunities or resources for local at-risk youth in the far south-side Chicago community of Roseland. Roughly 94 percent of the population is African-American; only 12.5 percent have college degrees; 20.2 percent are high school dropouts; 43.1 percent are unemployed; and 37.5 percent live below the poverty line.
Latiker started Kids Off The Block to help low-income, at-risk youth find positive alternatives to gangs, drugs, truancy, violence, and the juvenile justice system. “In the beginning, I sat down with kids who were coming to my house and asked them what they wanted and needed to stay off the streets,” said Latiker. “Many of them said they were afraid of gangs, tired of failing in school, and weary of being cold and hungry.”
Soon thereafter, Latiker sold her family television and other possessions to purchase computers and printers, creating homework help in her living room. She offered tutoring, mentoring, healthy activities, and a safe space for her young following. “I had individual and group meetings with kids to help them set goals for their life and figure out what they needed to do to reach them,” she said.
Latiker is quick to point out the community partners who have supported Kids Off The Block with funding, programming, supplies, facilities, and more, including Nike, Metropolitan Family Services, community assistance programs, the Black United Fund, and the City of Chicago, among others.
Under Latiker’s watch, Kids Off The Block has flourished. Thirteen years later, she continues to be a changemaker for young people. “I couldn’t do what I do without volunteers who help run the programs, provide food and clothing for children who come to my home, and generally just help out,” said the humble woman.
The number of young people who made their way to her home—and later earned scholarships to go to college, graduate, start careers, and be successful—is astounding. Delroy Folkes is one example. Coming from a perilous background, Folkes was 16 when he showed up at Latiker’s doorstep searching for meaning in his life. After spending time in Kids Off The Block and enjoying success in school, Folkes went on to Northern Illinois University on a full scholarship, and recently graduated with a degree in sports management.
“Ms. Diane and Kids Off The Block have been instrumental in my successes. She offered me a safe alternative in a neighborhood plagued with violence and poverty, and she provided employment opportunities, avenues of self-development, and most importantly, a place where you feel like you matter. For that inspiration, I am forever grateful,” said Folkes.
Everything Latiker does is innovative. Along with the daily programming of Kids Off The Block, Latiker hosts a Thanksgiving youth dinner every year, with hundreds in attendance. She recently held a 24-hour Peace Jam on a local basketball court to promote unity in her community.
Latiker has received numerous awards for her work. She was named a Top 10 CNN Hero, received a 2013 BET Award, was designated as an All-Star Community Hero, and received the local Peacemakers Award and a Daily Point of Light Award, among others.
Latiker said that Kids Off The Block is in desperate need of computer and technology upgrades. If she were to receive additional funding, she would purchase more computers and upgrade the technology in the computer lab and music studio she has created in her home.
“I know the desires of the heart of these youngsters,” said Latiker. “I know they want to do good and be successful. I have never turned a child away who needed my help, and I never will.”