Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Thank you, Eleanor Josaitis

I remember walking in the right lane of Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak with my little sister and hundreds of others, black and white, sometime in the late 1970s. It was a gray, windy, chilly day – I can’t remember the month – and we were marching for peace and unity and brotherhood, as it was called then. The riot that shook the Motor City, just 15 miles south of where we walked, a decade earlier was still fresh on people’s minds.

I met a smiling priest named Father William Cunningham, who I later learned co-founded the group sponsoring the event, but I don’t remember meeting Eleanor Josaitis, the other founder of Focus: HOPE, which is too bad. It would be nice to be able to say I was lucky enough to shake her hand.

Ms. Josaitis died early this morning, less than a year after being diagnosed with peritoneal cancer. She was 79.

I'm not writing about her because she deserves a blogger’s tribute – she’s rubbed elbows with presidents and earned more accolades than can be listed – but because her life gives me hope. I’ve been mired in muck lately, depressed and discouraged by greedy politicians, unethical corporate executives and shallow, self-absorbed celebrities. But the amazing dedication and determination of Eleanor Josaitis, who co-founded Focus: HOPE back when I was just six years old to help spread peace and love in metropolitan Detroit, are inspirational and smile-inducing and just what the doctor ordered.

One writer wrote that the nonprofit civil and human rights organization she founded “spawned opportunity and optimism in Detroit's riot-ravaged core.” When they started it, Father Cunningham and Ms. Josaitis had no money and an all-volunteer staff. Today, Focus: HOPE has an operating budget of $23 million, 285 employees and 15,000 volunteers.

Focus: HOPE’s food program provides free food to 42,000 pregnant women, postpartum mothers, children under six and seniors each month. The program has helped over 21 million people since 1971.

Center for Advanced Technologies
Focus: HOPE’s Center for Advanced Technologies gives underserved people the opportunity to earn college degrees in engineering. One hundred and sixty-seven people have earned associate’s degrees and 89 have earned bachelor’s degrees since the program was created in 1993.

The organization is involved in vocational training and certification, health care and weatherization education, economic development and community revitalization, youth academic enrichment, community arts and cultural diversity, and community building and safety. Focus: HOPE’s mission statement, adopted back in March of 1968, says it all:

"Recognizing the dignity and beauty of every person, we pledge intelligent and practical action to overcome racism, poverty and injustice. And to build a metropolitan community where all people may live in freedom, harmony, trust and affection. Black and white, yellow, brown and red from Detroit and its suburbs of every economic status, national origin and religious persuasion we join in this covenant."

I read that her religious beliefs were extremely important to Ms. Josaitis and that she would begin each day with 30 minutes of prayer and meditation.

Regular “What’s the Diehl?” readers know that spirituality isn’t a big part of my life. But maybe I’m making a mistake. If faith can motivate someone to achieve as much as Eleanor Josaitis did, to enhance people’s lives as much as she did, to make the world so much better, there must be something to it after all.

Rest in peace, Ms. Josaitis. And thank you.


  1. I'm all for spirituality and volunteer work. I know that for me volunteering (to do almost anything positive) lets me look outward and helps me to feel alive and of use.