In a run-down stretch of Chicago’s South Michigan Avenue, miles from the museums and skyscrapers, an army of foot-high paving stones stand on shelves along the street. It’s a handmade memorial to honor the young people who have died at the hands of the city’s street violence. A name is written on each of the 574 stones.
But they are not just names to Diane Latiker.
“This is the first stone that went up, Blair Hope, coming home on the school bus, 14-year-old got on the bus, sprayed the bus, trying to protect his classmate, girls next to him, and he was killed,” Latiker says. “Arthur Jones, 10 years old, going to get some candy. Fred Couch, he got killed a couple of blocks from here.”
Just last weekend, 20 people were shot in Chicago and one died. The city’s had about a 20 percent increase in shootings and homicides in the first half of this year, and an epidemic of gun violence the past few years. Most of the killings have occurred in neighborhoods on the South Side, most of those victims have been African-American and many have been teenagers and younger.
On any given day, sirens and shots ring through the night. And in the morning, children, like the bright-eyed and bold 11-year-old boy Amari, often don’t want to walk to school.
“Somebody, they tried to jump me,” Amari says. “I was walking my little sister. They said they going to kill us and stuff. I don’t know, I think they must have thought I was somebody they was looking for or something.”
Amari is one of Diane Latiker’s Kids Off the Block, a group she began in her home in the city’s Roseland neighborhood in 2003.
In a neighborhood where people bolt iron doors and lash down their window shades, Latiker opened her door.
She and her husband have eight children, and she’s become what amounts to an activist mother to her neighborhood. She invites young people into her house, and into her life.
She says she tries to make a difference with these kids on a personal level.
“The only way I can help them is if I listen and know what they need,” she says. “Because they have so many issues and I just try to be on the personal side with them. And if a kid needs a coat to go to school, I try to find a coat. If he needs a way back and forth to school because of gang lines, we gonna take him back and forth to school. We do traditional programs of course, like tutoring and mentoring and conflict resolution stuff like that, but I found out you have to get into their lives. You know, you have to. Because the only way to help them is to realize that they have a life worth living.”
In the beginning, she says she took a naïve approach.
“I thought everybody wanted to help the kids and the young people. So when I invited those kids into our house, I never thought it would go this far. I never thought all those other kids were out there,” she says. “When those kids, the ones I invited to my house, the nine, they went out there and told other kids, ‘There’s this lady can help,’ and they started coming.”
Latiker works with about 50 kids at the moment. She receives support from local churches, city agencies and neighborhood groups, and has become well-known. The mayor of Chicago has paid his respects. She was one of CNN’s Heroes of the Year in 2011.
“There are two brothers up here, their mom lost them a week apart,” she says, surrounded by the memorial stones. “Shamiah Adams, 11; Antonio Smith, 9; Devonshay Lofton, 16; They all had lives.”
She can recall many young people who’ve passed through her home, touched her heart and gone on to success. But she also remembers, just as sharply, a boy named Red who came to her when he was 15. She helped him get a summer job and he did better in school. But Red couldn’t outrun the streets:
“At 18, he got with the wrong crowd. He started dodging me, I couldn’t find him. Next thing I know he’s robbing people, shooting at people, throwing up gang signs, getting high,” Latiker says. “The last time I saw him was two weeks before he was killed. He said he didn’t want to have anything to do with what I was talking about, he didn’t believe in it. And he rode off.”
She saw Red once more: dead in the street.
Now and then, another name rises to the top of the news. Three weeks ago, it was Tyshawn Lee, a 9-year-old boy who was lured into an alley and shot at close range. Police say a gang wanted to terrorize Lee’s father, who reputedly belongs to another gang.
Latiker has seen how gangs have begun to target the families of rivals, a cruelty she says she once thought was too brutal even for gangs.
“I don’t care how heartless you are, you couldn’t imagine that ‘I’m risking my mother or that my four-year-old sister or brother is in danger coming from school because I made a decision’ — and you’re still going to stay in it? Knowing that it’s beyond you now and that your family is marked,” she says. “You couldn’t have imagined that.”
But she did imagine that an empty lot across the street behind all those names on stones could be a basketball court free from drugs and crime. A donor came forward to build it, and the hoops drew boys to her door.
Today, two 13-year-olds, Jaheim Elliot and Cinque Dunn, will receive Champions for Teens Awards.
Elliot’s father died about five years ago, of a heart attack. Dunn’s father was shot to death in the street two years ago.
They’re both 8th graders who found Diane Latiker through playing on her basketball court.
“I seen a whole full court basketball rim and then when I asked I came across the street and knocked on the door and asked could we play basketball and she said yeah…like a whole group of us ready to play basketball … And she said we could come up here any time.”
And they say she’s helped a lot.
“Diana’s a grandma to me. She treat me like a grandma.”
“She takes care of us,” Elliot agrees.
Their words touch Latiker.
“When I’m around Miss Diane I feel safe.”
And they say she’s helped a lot — that she’s like a grandmother to them.
The boys and their friends play on as the sun comes down, and Diane Latiker looks on.
She has to add another 500 stones to the shelves on this lot, with more names of children who have died in Chicago’s gun violence.
But for a moment she gets to watch five boys who have knocked on her door run, laugh and feel safe enough just to play basketball.