Diane Latiker has never been one to wait for others to solve problems.
After all, she started her nonprofit Kids Off the Block 16 years ago by opening up her own living room to at-risk youth to curb gang violence, quickly gaining national recognition that included being honored as a CNN hero and one of L’Oreal Paris’ Women of Worth.
Before the spotlight was turned on the disproportionate COVID-19 deaths among African Americans — and social determinants fueling them — Latiker knew the disadvantaged population she served in Roseland would be hard hit.
After the Chicago Public Schools closed March 17, she and her husband set up a tent at 115th Street & Michigan Avenue, offering burgers, chips and juice to any hungry youth.
“I was sitting in my bedroom watching all the devastating coronavirus news and feeling afraid, even with my faith as strong as it is. So I prayed, and it came to me,” said the 63-year-old mother of eight and grandmother of 15.
“We’d wait for young people to come by, and ask them, ‘Hey, did you eat today? Did you go to the school?’ They’d say, ‘No,’ and we’d give them a meal. Then the homeless heard we were out there, and started coming. Now we were feeding them too.”
That was until Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s March 21 shelter-in-place order drove the couple off their corner and back inside the house. But that wasn’t going to stop them.
Ten days later, Latiker, her husband and a couple of volunteers started driving around the city, doling out food and critical coronavirus information and supplies to vulnerable populations, including the homeless.
“We decided that since COVID-19 would squash our summer programming this year, we could talk to some of our donors and see if they would help us put gas in the van and take supplies around to people on the street in Roseland who have nowhere to shelter in place,” Latiker said.
A donor provided the first 100 face masks. The couple bought gloves and sanitizer. Then with 50 homemade meals, Latiker and her husband hit the streets to kick off Kids Off The Block’s now citywide “Resource & Response Project.”
Community activist Dawn Valenti had also sought a way to help, so she joined them on the rides, along with Latiker’s sister.
As they posted social media reports of their experiences and immense need they were seeing on the streets, people started donating masks, gloves, sanitizer and other supplies.
Latiker’s group also passes out postcards it printed with the “Do The Five” campaign to stop the spread of coronavirus on the front. On the back is a list of city and state resources.
Given that the black community has a COVID-19 death rate four times higher than whites, the group’s crucial drive-by deliveries give a new meaning to the term “ride or die.”
When Rainbow PUSH got wind of the Kids Off The Block project, the civil rights group offered enough meals to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner for 150 people every day.
Strides For Peace started helping buy gas for the rides; KOVAL Distillery donated hand sanitizer; and Chicago Beyond and the Great Gourmet began donating food weekly.
Chicago businessman Michael Dolan also donated 1,000 face masks, and another 2,000 came from Chicago area volunteers who sewed them for Latiker’s group, which has driven around the South and West sides every day, missing only two rainy days, since March 31.
“Once we pick up the meals and pack the van, we start riding, from homeless shelters and tent cities to South and West Side corners [where] you’ll find crowds hanging out, 63rd & Evans, Madison & Central, 77th & Pulaski, 72nd & Laflin, the list goes on,” Latiker said.
“We roll from South Shore to Austin, West Englewood to West Garfield Park — wherever there’s a need, for as long as we have gas. And when I tell you people are so grateful, you can’t help but be moved.
“You can see years and years of neglect in these communities, and now they have to survive a pandemic, with few resources. So they need us. We all need each other. It’s as simple as that. It’s OK to be scared, but you can still help somebody.”
Donations can be made on the Kids Off The Block website and drop-off of donations at KOB headquarters can be arranged by emailing Latiker at firstname.lastname@example.org