CHICAGO (Reuters) - On a sweltering summer day on the South Side of Chicago, a group of teenage boys hauled rocks and pulled weeds in a vacant lot. They were working for free -- and being hollered at by a woman they call “Ms. Diane.”
“Pull your pants up!” Diane Latiker yelled at one teen, who quickly hiked his trousers. “Ain’t no party!” she scolded others, who were talking instead of working. They got busy.
“I love you, too,” she added, as if anyone had forgotten.
The teens were repairing a memorial for victims of violence aged 24 and under in Chicago since 2007. It consists of 226 names inked on paving stones arrayed on blue wooden shelves.
The display sits inside a covered wooden pavilion, so it’s protected from the weather but can still be seen from the street. The memorial had been vandalized -- a cross and flowers were stolen, stones were broken -- so it needed to be fixed up.
It’s also incomplete -- 177 more names need to be added.
The memorial is in a neighborhood called Roseland, where in 2009, in a video that went viral worldwide over the Internet, a high school student was seen being beaten to death by a mob.
The memorial spotlights a national problem. Homicide is the leading cause of death for African-Americans aged 10 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Many of the kids working on the memorial knew someone who had been murdered.
So does Latiker, 54, a mother of eight and former hair stylist who in 2003 opened her home to help neighborhood teens escape violence. She calls the program “Kids Off the Block.”
It started with taking her youngest child, Aisha, then 13, and her friends out for swimming and skating excursions.
Diane’s mother, evangelist Ruth Jackson, saw how the kids respected her and urged her daughter to start an after-school program. Latiker said no.
“I figured in five years Aisha would be off to college and I’d be free,” she said in an interview.
But Jackson kept pushing, and Latiker began welcoming neighborhood kids into her small living room to work on music and other projects after school or during the summer.
Latiker said she learned that the kids wanted to be doctors and lawyers and singers and basketball players. Meanwhile they wanted something to do instead of hanging out on the streets.
Some came from troubled homes, with mothers on drugs or fathers in jail. Some had dropped out of school to care for younger siblings, or were scared to go to school.
Above all, Latiker was disturbed by the amount of violence the teens saw -- both in the media and in their real lives.
“When you give a kid who’s impressionable this much violence when they’re growing up, they think, ‘Hey, that’s the way it is,'” Latiker said. “When you lose a friend or a family member to violence, you begin to feel hopeless, powerless, that there’s nothing you can do.”
The number of boys and girls hanging out around Latiker’s home every day or calling to talk in the middle of the night began to grow. The number swelled to 75 kids, at which point Latiker’s husband James, a mild-mannered car mechanic on disability, had to say that was enough.
A group of retired businessmen saw how crowded her house was. With Latiker, they set up Kids Off The Block, or KOB, in 2010 in a nearby storefront. The memorial is across the street.
Working with seven volunteers, including Latiker’s mother, sister-in-law and daughter, the kids clean up vacant lots, do art projects, play basketball, and compose and sing “positive raps,” using KOB’s tiny music room.
They get food, tutoring and mentoring. They have also traveled to other cities, including Washington, D.C., where they participated in a jobs and education rally.
“She’s like another mother,” said Dawon Brewer, 18, of Latiker. He wants to do construction but his school doesn’t offer wood shop. So KOB projects give him a chance to learn.
Over the years, KOB has gotten donations and some government funding, though this has been a lean year, Latiker said. A community development grant keeps the lights on.
“We dig in our pockets when we can,” said Latiker.
Asked why he comes to KOB, Dante Gaines, 18, said: “She’s giving us something to do.”
Thin and soft-spoken, Gaines wore a T-shirt screened with a picture of his friend C.J. Cortez, 19, who died of a gunshot wound in July.
Asked if he was worried something might happen to him, too, Gaines said: “Anything could happen. People gotta start caring.”
Jermel Barlow, 22, team leader for KOB’s music program, said gunshots in the area are so common “it’s kind of like a doorbell.”
“You hope no one close to you got shot, you call around and make sure everybody’s OK,” said Barlow. “That’s pretty much routine around here.”
Aisha Latiker, 21, who volunteers at KOB while studying psychology in college, said violence has gotten worse since she was in high school.
“I’ve lost over 12 friends in the last two years due to gun violence,” she said. “The attitude is if someone looks at you wrong, if someone says something wrong to you about your clothes or your shoes, you’re ready to pick up a gun.”
She said violence in the neighborhood seemed to decrease in 2010, when a government program provided some part-time jobs. But when the program ended, the violence got worse again. KOB volunteers said neighborhood gangs make it difficult for the group to venture outside of it for events.
Diane Latiker grew up in a tough neighborhood but said the gangs then didn’t target seniors, or little kids.
“Nowadays, it’s like who cares? The young people -- it’s like out of the movies now...” she said, her voice rising in anger. “The guns need to come off the street, at least in my neighborhood. They serve no purpose. What purpose does a gun serve in urban America?”
Latiker hopes to finish expanding the memorial by the end of August. But the list of young people killed won’t stop growing.
Five children under age 18 were shot and killed in Chicago in the last month, including a 17-year-old pregnant girl whose premature son was saved; a 13-year-old boy playing basketball in a park; and a six-year-old girl sleeping on a couch in her grandmother’s house.
The first name on the KOB memorial, and its inspiration, is that of Blair Holt, 16, the son of a Chicago police officer. Blair was killed by another teen in May 2007, as he shielded a classmate from gunfire on a bus.
Asked if she ever wants to give up, Diane Latiker answers, “Every day.”
“The violence just sucks all the energy out of me when I hear about another young person getting killed, and it was another young person that did it,” she said.
She said she gets her hope back by talking to kids who come to see her.
“I can’t function if I don’t have hope,” Latiker said. “If I give up, hundreds of young people give up.”
Writing and reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Peter Bohan