The Kids Off the Block Youth Center on the corner of 117th Street and Michigan Avenue only recently reopened its doors. It had been closed since the end of the summer for repairs after the ceiling collapsed, and the organization is still in the process of reorganizin. However, while the center’s floors are scuffed from water damage, its walls tell a different story. Every inch, hand-painted by community youth, is covered in framed articles, plaques, and certificates documenting the achievements of the organization and its founder Diane Latiker, who has been honored as one of CNN’s Top Heroes of 2011 and a BET Award Honoree. All the work on the center, including the ceiling repairs, has been done by community members. Even the Kids Off the Block (KOB) sign at the entrance, which features a portrait of Latiker, was a gift from the youth when KOB moved into the building in 2010.
In its mission statement, Kids Off the Block describes itself as a nonprofit organization designed “to provide at-risk, low-income youth positive alternatives to gangs, drugs, truancy, violence, and the juvenile justice system.” It does so by offering a myriad of services that address the issues young people face on a big-picture level, paying particular attention to their health, education, and social networks.
Latiker first opened the doors of her home to youth in her Roseland community in 2003, wanting her thirteen-year-old daughter Aisha and her friends to have a haven away from gangs. A safe space for a few teenagers rapidly grew into a refuge for seventy-five kids, most of whom Aisha did not know at all, but who had heard of Miss Diane’s open offer of kindness to anyone looking for it. Kids slept on her dining room floor, ate at her table, and showed up at all hours of the day and night. That same year, Latiker left her job as a cosmetologist to devote herself full-time to developing the programs she had started.
“I invited those kids into my home, not knowing what to do. I was a mom: I knew kids, but I didn’t know other people’s kids,” Latiker said. Despite early hesitations, Latiker realized that the first step was to get to know the kids.
“One of the keys to young people is to listen, so you can find out what they’re going through. You can only help the youth by focusing on what they need, not what you think they need.” It didn’t take long before she had heard countless stories about how these kids were being chased by gangs and failing school, and how their academic struggles stemmed from a fear for their own safety as well as domestic distractions.
Latiker has resolved countless conflicts in the last twelve years, including one where she stood between the barrels of two guns in a living room filled with seventy-five teenagers. Conflict is not uncommon among the youth at the Center, and she explains that, “[Conflicts] escalate because they are already upset about what is going on with life, at home, and at school, and they take it out on each other.”
Since KOB’s earliest days, it partnered with people and organizations both inside and outside the community to address these issues and achieve its goal of helping as many youth as possible. Although Latiker started this program on her own, she’s quick to point out that “no man is an island.” Today, she works with a team of seven youth advisors, full-time volunteers who plan KOB’s programming and growth. In addition to them, Latiker also has a core team of about twenty-five volunteers who work on planning KOB’s special events.
Latiker’s programs began informally before developing into today’s formal organization. “I had no idea at the beginning,” she says. “I knew the boys liked basketball, so I took fifty-nine dollars and bought a rolling basketball hoop. Before I knew it, I had fifty boys from everywhere coming to play ball.” That hoop has since transformed into a full outdoor basketball court in the vacant lot across the street from the center.
Latiker did far more than offer a space to shoot hoops, however; she worked to help the students feel safe so that they could participate in school, offering tutoring services to boost their grades and providing recreational activities to foster their passions. Eventually, she expanded their academic services to include a focus on higher education. “They told me about how nobody in their family was going to college. So I started working with organizations to get them into college,” Latiker said.
She pointed out two young men of KOB with special pride. They recently graduated college and are now launching their own tax preparation service. Their offices are housed in the KOB community center, and in return, they will teach youth interested in entrepreneurship how to prepare taxes. Exchanges of that kind are common in KOB’s history. Youth give back however they can in a number of ways, whether as full-time volunteers, music instructors, or members of the planning committee for the Feed a Team event every Thanksgiving.
“This year I’m taking a leap of faith,” Latiker said: her future plans for KOB involve investing its limited funds to boost its strength as a career resource. “Jobs are fine, but careers are different, trades, something they can do when times are hard,” she explained. To work toward this goal, she planned workshops with multinational corporations like Nike as well as with individuals who teach trades like carpentry and coding.
In fact, Latiker and her team are currently applying for grant funding in the hopes of expanding programming, hiring a full-time staff, and purchasing a permanent facility. A few of the volunteers are taking grant writing classes.
Despite KOB’s wide scope of programming, Latiker maintains that mentoring is KOB’s first priority and its most successful program. As she summed it up, “For those young people who think nobody cares, to see somebody actually care, and you don’t know them, and they care? Changes lives. Can’t nothing touch that.”
Get involved with Kids Off the Block by contacting Latiker and her team of volunteers at www.kobchicago.org.