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How One Woman in Chicago is Combating Gun Violence

Chicago woman Diane Latiker, the founder of Kids Off the Block, is keeping kids in the violence-scarred city off the streets and away from guns.
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Gun violence plagues Chicago. There were more than 2,000 shootings in the city last year alone. The shootings increase in the summer months: over the holiday weekend, dozens of people were shot and nine died in the gunfire. Beneath the sobering figures are personal stories, both of fear and resilience. NBC News' Tracy Jarrett spent time in Chicago to hear them.

Part 3 in a series.

Diane Latiker’s 13-year-old daughter and her friends had nothing to do and nowhere to hang out.

It was 12 years ago in Chicago. They were running wild in the neighborhood, and that was a problem: The parks weren’t safe. Vacant lots and boarded-up buildings were no place for kids to spend free time.

Latiker decided to invite the children in and figure out what interested them. She wrote them corny rap songs to perform. She took them skating, swimming and to the movies. The kids had a blast.

The next week, three or four others showed up. Then two or three more.

“Within a couple of weeks we had 30 kids coming to the house,” Latiker said.

Related: Chicago Violence Rises With the Heat of Summer

Latiker, a former construction worker and cosmetologist and a mother of eight, saw an opportunity to make a difference for the community she had lived in for more than 20 years.

It started as an overcrowding problem. Now it’s a full-time job.

Diane Latiker, founder of Kids off the Block, talks with kids who come to the basketball court that she set up across from her house in the Roseland community area of Chicago.John Brecher / NBC News

She lived in a modest house in the neighborhood of Roseland — two bedrooms, a bathroom, a small living room and a small dining room. Soon 70 kids were spilling into her kitchen and bedroom.

Latiker sold her television and used the money to buy used computers that she set up in her dining room for the kids who wanted homework help. Her husband said she was crazy, but the kids kept coming, and she kept letting them in.

She named her program Kids Off the Block: A nonprofit organization dedicated to providing alternatives to gangs, drugs, violence and the juvenile justice system. More than 2,000 children have participated, she said.

Related: Honoring the Dead is Delicate Work in Chicago Gangland

Some are already in gangs. Others are trying to get out or avoid getting in. Some are fighting with their families and rarely go home. Under Latiker’s watch, they take field trips and feast at summer cookouts.

Latiker says they’re all looking for the same thing: Someone who will listen.

“The challenges of a kid growing up in Roseland is being able to grow up in Roseland,” said Latiker, now 58. “What kids in this neighborhood need more than anything right now is support.”

Latiker even cleaned up an empty lot that was full of gang members, drug dealers and prostitutes. She put up a basketball net. Anyone in the neighborhood is welcome to play and learn about her program.

Boys from the Roseland community shoot hoops at the Kids off the Block court.John Brecher / NBC News

Among the kids who play now is Shanon Hampton, 14, who says he was once approached to be in a gang.

“I told them I'm not like that, you can get killed by that,” he said.

This year, Latiker is trying to get fifth- through eighth-graders into a basketball league. Kids Off the Block partnered with Chicago’s Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center, Nike and an organization called Strides for Peace to create a summer tournament for nonprofits.

Latiker said she is targeting those ages because that’s when many boys are first recruited by gang members.

“If you can tire them out for the day so all they think about is getting to bath, eating and going to bed, you've scored,” she said. “You can’t let them wander out here or get involved with the negative influences that are out here.”

"Miss Diane treats me like I’m her own son. And I treat her like she is my own mom."

Latiker said she’s seen young people change their lives, leave gangs, stop carrying weapons, and go to college. Despite the success, space is a challenge. Latiker is still mainly running the program from her house.

Four years ago, Latiker said, the city found that she failed to file proper documentation accounting for how she spent grant money. Latiker calls it a misunderstanding and says she paid back what was left.

Latiker hasn’t applied for city money again, but she said she has a good relationship with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has co-hosted fundraisers for the organization since then.

"Diane Latiker, like many community leaders throughout Chicago, is committed to being part of the solution to gun violence," Adam Collins, a spokesman for the mayor's office said in an email to NBC News. "While she has not received grant funding from the city in several years, Mayor Emanuel has deep respect for her work and has personally helped raise funds for Kids Off the Block in support of our collective work to improve the safety of our communities."

In an interview, the city treasurer, Kurt Summers, called her a “local treasure.”

“For every community she touches, they see her sincerity,” he told NBC News. “It’s important that we have someone who gets it, who understands it, who has not only been there but has the tenacity to work as hard as she does day in and day out.”

For now, Latiker relies on donations and odd jobs that she and her husband work. An appearance on ABC’s “Secret Millionaire” in 2011 brought Latiker attention and a wave of new donations.

The work can be discouraging. Two children whom Latiker was personally mentoring have been shot, one fatally.

The first was in 2008. He was shot 10 times while hanging out with a friend on his front porch. He was 19, and he and Latiker had worked on raising his grades and ways for him to indulge his passion for singing. He survived but still has five bullets in his body.

Two years later, another 19-year-old was shot dead on the street after a brawl in a neighborhood barbershop. That evening, Latiker was driving kids home after a peace rally downtown. She came upon a crime scene and found him dead in the street.

It had been months since she had seen him. The last time they spoke, he told her he had given up.

“I blamed myself for a long time because I always felt that I could have done more,” she said.

She presses on. Among this year’s kids is Daqwon Hargrove, 12, who began coming to Kids Off the Block in the spring and is enrolled in the summer basketball tournament.

“In Roseland, there’s a lot of shooting and stuff. It’s not safe to walk around at night. Around like eight o'clock, be in the house,” he said. “Miss Diane treats me like I’m her own son. And I treat her like she is my own mom. That makes me feel like somebody cares about me, other than my family.”

Latiker wants to create a technology center so the kids can learn coding and take lessons in entrepreneurship and job training. A neighborhood church has already volunteered space.

Many of the children she works with have police records and need help building skills toward finding jobs.

“A lot of them now think the only thing they have of value is a gun,” she said.

A memorial at the Kids off the Block site commemorates young people lost to violence in Chicago. There are 374 stones in the memorial, said Diane Latiker, but "we're 563 behind. We stopped keeping up, they was coming so fast."John Brecher / NBC News

She also plans to rebuild and expand a memorial she built next to the basketball court, with names of people lost to gun violence in Chicago. Every name is a reminder of what the kids in the neighborhood are up against.

“We plant a seed,” she said. “I get a little bit in here, a little bit in there, so when they do go out that gate they are filled with positivity.”

Shanon Hampton puts it another way.

“When I grow up and move, I will miss this court and I'll miss Miss Diane for letting me come here and how she cares for us.” Hampton said.

For now, he’s looking forward to leading his team to victory in the summer basketball tournament.