LIVONIA (WWJ)- Eleanor Josaitis, one of the co-founders of Focus: HOPE, has died at the age of 79. Her son Mark told WWJ she passed away Tuesday morning at Angela Hospice in Livonia, where she spent the past several days. She was diagnosed with cancer less than one year ago.
Josaitis was an accidental civil rights leader of sorts. In 1967, she was a housewife who became concerned about the racial divide following the Detroit riots. In the aftermath, she and her friend, Fr.William Cunningham, founded Focus: HOPE - an organization whose mission was to eliminate racism, poverty and injustice.
Fr. Cunningham died in 1997 and Josaitis continued to be involved in the foundation. Her friends said even when she was bedridden, she admonished her family and friends to continue the work of Focus: HOPE; the work she had pursued for 45 years.
“In 1997 before Father Cunningham passed away, he asked me to promise that I would make his work live on, and because of the kindness and generosity of so many supporters. I have been able to keep that commitment,” she once said.
She became a national advocate for a food program designed to meet the nutrition needs for children and seniors; a proponent of job training programs that gave women and minorities access to the financial mainstream, and a passionate Detroiter who strove to revitalize the city and its neighborhoods.
“There’s no greater way to eliminate racism and poverty than to see that people have education, skills, jobs and opportunities in life,” she frequently said.
Josaitis is widely regarded as a leader who fought with courage and tenacity for causes close to her heart. She experienced the jubilation of winning Congressional approval of a national food program that has assisted hundreds of thousands of low-income families; the loneliness of a lengthy, and eventually victorious, federal discrimination lawsuit against a local employer; and the satisfaction of providing job training and support services that have put more than 10,000 talented men and women into successful, good-paying careers.
Speaking live on WWJ, family friend, Fr. Larry Ventline, said Josaitis will be remembered for her big heart.
“She just certainly showed charity for everybody. She wanted to enlarge the playing field for particularly those who were down and out, those who were excluded and those who needed a voice who didn’t have one,” Fr. Ventline said. “Eleanor stood up when others chose to sit. And the world, in this particular area of the metropolitan Detroit, is different because of Eleanor.”
Josaitis said the turning point in her life came as she watched a televised report on the violence inflicted on civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama. The horrific scene of dogs and fire hoses unleashed on American citizens ignited her passion for justice.
She became a civil rights activist—and a few years later co-founded Focus: HOPE when violence erupted in her own city. She often recalled walking the streets of Detroit the day after the riots ended telling Cunningham they had to do something to get at the root of the problems that caused the tragedy.
Among their first actions was conducting a study that showed the pricing and quality discrepancies between urban and suburban grocery and drug stores. Their findings gained national attention and put Focus: HOPE on the map as an organization that would make a difference in the inner city.
When she realized that a good education didn’t mitigate all the challenges faced by Focus: HOPE students, she started conducting etiquette classes. “I want them to know all the rules—what piece of silverware to use, how to shake hands, make eye contact, work a room, what to do at a cocktail party,” she said. “People put a label on you real quick. I want to remove that label.”
The firebombing of Focus: HOPE’s offices in the 1970s, the vile “love letters” she received, and the tornado that inflicted $18 million in damages to the campus just two months after Father Cunningham’s passing never discouraged her. And those tragedies only made the organization stronger.
“I refuse to be intimidated,” she said. “It just makes me want to work harder.”
Nothing warmed her heart more than graduates returning to give her hugs and tell her that they had a great job, a family, a house – and even took a vacation. She recalled one woman quietly walking up to thank her. “I’m about to get my Ph.D and I was once on your food program,” she whispered.
The rest of her life was spent outclassing anyone who stood in her way.
She is survived by her husband, Don; children Mark, Janet (James) Denk, Michael, Thomas, and Mary (Mark) Lendzion; grandchildren Elizabeth Josaitis, Kevin Josaitis, Nora Josaitis, David Denk, Chelsie Engel, Alec Josaitis and Alison Denk; sisters Margaret Krueger and Janet Lang, brother Louis Reed.
Although funeral arrangements are pending, her son Mark said the family plans to hold a public visitation at the Church of the Madonna, followed by funeral service at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Detroit.