A huge heart changes our city for the better

by | Aug 7, 2011 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Say a prayer for Eleanor Josaitis.

The tireless co-founder of Focus: HOPE was resting in hospice care at the time this column was written. Resting? Eleanor? Hard to believe. But at 79, she was in the last rounds of another bout with cancer, surrounded by her immediate family.

That would be one of her smaller crowds.

She has employed thousands, inspired tens of thousands, influenced millions – yet many do not know her name. She made no movies. She sang no pop songs. She started in a basement with a few friends, a housewife and a mother who took stock of the world around her in the 1960s – especially the racial tension in Detroit – and decided she needed to help.

Along the way, as with many who try to bring people together, she was vilified, cursed at, her offices were firebombed. She just kept going. You couldn’t stop Eleanor Josaitis. Cancer may be trying. But I’m sure it’s sorry it ever took her on.

“She would not take no for an answer,” Frank Kubik said last week. He would know. He started with Eleanor in 1981 when she hired him as a warehouse worker. “I was scared to death of her. I thought I’d be gone in six months.” His six months turned to 30 years. Thanks to her inspiration, Kubik now runs Focus: HOPE’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which helps feed around half a million people a year.

Eleanor has a way of doing that. Grabbing the best part of you and stretching it over the years like pizza dough.

Always trying to help

A lot of Detroiters have an Eleanor story. For me, she has been a professional friend, a smiling face that let me know if she was somewhere, it was probably a good place for me, too. We didn’t eat dinners together, or see movies. We ran into each other the way so many in Detroit ran into Eleanor – in the streets, working, representing her group, feeding people, appearing on their behalf. She always struck me as a force. Not in body. She is not a big person. But a fire shone behind her eyes and when she took your hand or started a conversation, you sensed she was thinking, “I wonder how this guy can help the needy.”

Most people angle for themselves. Eleanor was angling for others.

She was passionate and insistent and her catch phrase was always “I refuse to be intimidated” – as if anyone would be stupid enough to try. She began by taking on stubborn racial attitudes. (Focus: HOPE, founded with the late Rev. William Cunningham, is still referred to as a civil rights organization.) She pushed for harmony when fires of hate were smoldering. And as a white woman of the ’60s and ’70s, she was viewed by some as taking the wrong side.

The heck with them.

Caring about all people

Eleanor never saw color. She saw humanity. Kubik said of all the politicians and big wigs who feted her in recent years, the most impressive company she’d keep were the local folks who’d call needing help, food, money.

“She’s come down with her car, have me load stuff up, and she’d take it over to them herself,” Kubik recalled. “She never lost touch with the people she was trying to help.”

As dogged as she was, Eleanor would tell you she was nothing special. And this may be her greatest legacy. Because she proved you don’t need a degree, a license or an election to help people. You don’t need to be “special.” You just need to be human and decent and unable to live among the poor or downtrodden without lifting a hand to make a difference.

If you go to the campus of the organization she co-founded, you’ll see acres of sparkling effort, education, computers, job opportunities. She understood you need skills and teaching to break a cycle of discrimination, and her idea of leveling the playing field was first making a playing field – a big one – where people could see their lives improved. Her organization is so perfectly named. Focus: HOPE. What is more nourishing than that word?

Kubik visited Eleanor a week and a half ago. He read aloud some pages from her daily prayer book and although “her face was pained, she seemed happy.”

This city has many Eleanors, people who labor for others with no fanfare. But it can always use more, especially now, since we may be losing a giant.

Say a prayer for Eleanor Josaitis.

She’d do the same for you.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!