SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There's a rundown stretch of Chicago's South Michigan Avenue, miles from the museums and skyscrapers, where an army of foot-high paving stones stand up on shelves along the street. It's a handmade memorial for young people who've died in Chicago street violence. Five hundred and seventy-four stones - a name is on each, but they're not just names to Diane Latiker.
DIANE LATIKER: When we started, 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 - was trying to protect his classmate, the girl next to him, and he was skilled. Oh, Arthur Jones - 10 years old, going to get some candy. Fred Couch, he's a - he got killed a couple of blocks from here.
SIMON: Twenty people were shot in Chicago last weekend - one died. Chicago'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 killed 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 a bright-eyed and bold 11-year-old boy named Amari, often don't want to walk to school.
AMARI: Somebody - they tried to jump me. I was walking my little sister, and they said they're going to kill us and stuff. I don't know, I think they must've think I was somebody they was looking for or something.
SIMON: Amari is one of Diane Latiker's Kids Off The Block, a group she began at her home in the city's Roseland neighborhood in 2003. In a neighborhood where people bolt iron doors and lash down their window shades, Diane 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.
What do you try and do? How do you try and make a difference in that?
LATIKER: On a personal level. The only way I can help them is if I listen and know what they need 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 the way back and forth to school because of gang, you know, lines, we're going to 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.
SIMON: What strikes me sitting here with you is that you decided to say, what can I do? You weren't going to wait for anyone else. You decided what can I do with my life to make things better?
LATIKER: Yeah, I went in to it naive. 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, you know? When those kids, the ones that invited to my house, the nine, they went out there and told other kids there's this lady can help. And they started coming.
SIMON: Diane 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.
LATIKER: There are two brothers up here. Their mom lost them in - a week apart. Shamiah Adams, 11, Antonio Smith, 9, Devonshay Lofton, 16 - they all had lives.
SIMON: 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, he did better in school, but Red couldn't outrun the streets.
LATIKER: 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. The last time I saw him was two weeks before he was killed. He said he didn't want to have anything do with what I was talking about, he didn't believe in it. And he rode off.
SIMON: 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 Tyshawn's father, who reputedly belongs to another gang. Diane 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.
LATIKER: I don't care how heartless you are. You couldn't imagine that I'm risking my mother or that my 4-year-old sister or brother is in danger from 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? You couldn't have imagined that.
JAHEIM ELLIOT: Get out my way.
SIMON: But Diane Latiker 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. Jaheim's father died about five years ago of a heart attack. Cinque's father was shot to death in the street two years ago. They're both eighth-graders who found her basketball court and then Diane Latiker.
JAHEIM: I seen a whole, like, a whole, full court basketball rim, and then that's when I asked - I came across the street and I knocked on the door, and I asked, could a group play basketball? And she said, yeah. It looked like a whole group of us were ready to play basketball. She let us play basketball. And then she said we could come over anytime. And she helped us out - helped us out a lot.
SIMON: What do you think Diane and other people you've met here have taught you about anything?
CINQUE DUNN: She be telling us to be careful because around here, there be lots of shooting and stuff. We be walking home from, like, basketball or football practice, and it be getting dark. She give us a ride, though, because she don't want nothing to happen to us.
JAHEIM: Diane like a grandmother to me. She treat me like my grandma.
SIMON: Like your grandma?
JAHEIM: ...'Cause she take cares us.
SIMON: She's smiling as you say that.
JAHEIM: When I'm around Ms. Diane, I feel safe.
SIMON: The boys and their friends play on as the sun comes down. The wind picks up, and Diane Latiker looks on. She has to add another 500 stones to the shelves on this lot with more names of children who've died in Chicago's gun violence. But for a moment, she gets to watch five boys who've knocked on her door run, laugh and feel safe enough just to play basketball. You're listening to NPR News.
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