Diane Latiker balked when her mother first suggested she get the neighborhood teens off the street by inviting them into her home.
"For the life of me I didn't want to do it," said Latiker, a mother of eight living in the gang-torn Roseland community on Chicago's far South Side.
Latiker, who at 16 dropped out of high school, married and got pregnant, had finally gotten her life on track after the birth of her last child, earning her GED and taking community college courses. She looked forward to an empty nest.
But after praying on it, Latiker decided for the sake of her youngest daughter, Aisha, 13 at the time, to open her doors to youth needing a safe haven from broken homes and violence-plagued streets. What began as 10 of Aisha's friends hanging out in her living room soon grew to 20 kids pushing into her dining room, then 40, and more.
"One day I looked up and there were 75 young people in my apartment," said Latiker, who was living in the modest three-bedroom two-flat with her husband, daughter and mother.
Latiker got rid of furniture to make room for the kids and sold the family's TV to buy six used computers, setting them up in her dining room. The idea was that the teens would come after school, but they came whenever they needed. Some showed up at 6 a.m., Latiker said. Others would spend the night sleeping on her floor. She came to be known as "mom" to many.
Eight years later, some 1,500 kids have cycled through Latiker's nonprofit, Kids Off The Block, which now runs out of a squat brick building, formerly a liquor store, at 117th Street and Michigan Avenue, a few doors down from her house.
And Latiker is being recognized as one of the Top 10 CNN Heroes for 2011, a program that awards "everyday people who are changing the world" with $50,000 grants to further their cause.
Live on CNN Sunday night, Latiker and the other honorees will join Anderson Cooper on stage to find out who will be named CNN Hero of the Year, as voted by fans — a title that comes with another $250,000 grant.
"My heart is going to be pounding out of my chest," Latiker said. She's taking her mother, Ruth Jackson, a former steel mill worker who raised Latiker alone — "My rock," Latiker calls her — as her guest.
Born in Drew, Miss., and raised in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood, Latiker grew up no stranger to poverty or violence, but teens today "feel hopeless," she said.
Her mission, she said, is to save as many kids as she can by getting them to believe in themselves again. So when a teen joins Kids Off The Block, she first finds out what he or she loves. If it's dancing, she gets them into a dancing program. If there's trouble academically, she arranges for a tutor. Many come for the basketball league. Latiker also takes the teens of field trips to other cities, where they walk streets similar to Roseland's and try to instill hope in other kids.
The work can be dangerous. Gang bangers, she said, have shot up her van and thrown bottles at her and her mother while they sat on their porch.
"Did it deter me?" Latiker said. "No, because the same boys who were doing that, I wanted to get a hold of them."
Her courage has been widely recognized. Last month, Latiker served as a panelist at the Festival of Thinkers in Abu Dhabi, where she joined Nobel Laureates and other world innovators to celebrate ideas for global progress.
Invited to a dinner at the sheik's palace, where guests dined on camel (it tastes like chicken with gravy, according to Latiker), "I felt like I stepped out of my body and I was watching somebody else," she said.
"I was so tense going there," Latiker said. "But then it came to me that I'm a grandmother from Roseland, Chicago, Illinois. And I could only speak to what I know. So I was myself, I couldn't be nobody else."
Q: What would you say is your greatest attribute?
A: My personality. Because I believe, I do. I believe in everybody.
Q: What's your greatest fault?
A: I believe too much. Sometimes I put myself in dangerous situations because I believe.
Q: What's your greatest possession?
A: My children.
Q: What's the best lesson you learned from your mother?
A: To never give up. To stay consistent.
Q: What is one secret to your success?
A: Caring. Even if your goal is to make a million dollars, you have to care – not about making a million dollars, but about people. Those people are the ones who will help you get to where you're going.
Q: What has been your biggest mistake?
A: Thinking I can save everybody. I still think I can.
Q: Which side gets cheated more often: personal or professional?
A: Definitely personal. I stay up until 3 a.m., then am back up at 6 or 7 a.m. Because I'm excited to show [the doubters] wrong. I'm not good at balancing. Actually I don't know how.
Q: What's your favorite country?
A: I just got back from Abu Dhabi. It invigorated me so. It rejuvenated me. The people were so beautiful. All these young women flocked to me. And you know what they admired? That I had had eight kids, and I still was able to pursue my passion.
Q: What did you want to be when you were 13 years old?
A: I was a regular on the first "Soul Train," and I won four times. That was my dream then, to be a dancer.
Q: What's something your mother never told you?
A: That men aren't your Prince Charming. You don't wake up every morning with rose-colored glasses.
Update: At the end of a star-studded show, Latiker was not named Hero of the Year. That distinction went to Robin Lim, an American midwife who has helped thousands of Indonesian women have healthy pregnancies and child births through her Yayasan Bumi Sehat health clinics.