Carol Cain: Event honors Focus: HOPE co-founder Eleanor Josaitis

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Courtesy of freep.com:

 

Eleanor Josaitis was watching TV at her Taylor home one night during the turbulent 1960s when the housewife and mother of five saw things that changed her life and impacted the lives of thousands of Detroiters.

“I had watched a special on Nuremberg and the Holocaust and asked, ‘If I had been there, could I have helped stop it?’ ” she once told me.

A news bulletin came on, and she saw civil rights protesters in Selma, Ala., being bullied by police and was upset.

After the 1967 riot in Detroit, she decided to help heal the city and never stopped until the 79-year-old trailblazer succumbed to cancer in August.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month and focus on women who have made a difference, few are in a league with the late civil rights icon who teamed with her parish priest, Father William Cunningham, and co-founded Focus: HOPE.

She will be remembered Saturday with a tribute dinner/fund-raiser to benefit Focus: HOPE shepherded by influential women including Beth Chappell, CEO of the Detroit Economic Club; Sandy Pierce, CEO of Charter One Bank/Michigan; Carol Goss, CEO of the Skillman Foundation and consultant Anne Mervenne.

Art Van Elslander, who founded Art Van Furniture and knew Josaitis for years, is the presenting sponsor for the dinner. He also rallied employees in the 17 Detroit-area Art Van stores to gather books and other goods to donate to Focus: HOPE.

And the retailer has other fund-raisers planned for the organization as it has chosen to focus its 2012 philanthropic efforts on Focus: HOPE.

Cunningham led way

Sometimes it takes one person to inspire a cause. In the case of Eleanor Josaitis, it was Cunningham who led the way.

After long talks with Cunningham and seeing the ravages of racial unrest, she packed up the family, along with her husband, Don, and moved into Detroit.

She and Cunningham started Focus: HOPE in the impoverished area. It grew to feed the hungry, trained people for jobs and added educational classes. It gained acclaim as U.S. presidents and others visited.

“She stood in front of our class and talked about how her priest friend and she were starting up an organization to help heal Detroit,” said Mervenne, then a 10-year-old fourth-grader at Gesu Elementary in Detroit.

“I’ll never forget it. I knew at that moment that I wanted to work with Eleanor when I grew up,” said Mervenne, who did as a Republican strategist who worked for former Gov. John Engler and ran his Detroit office.

Today, she helps Focus: HOPE with its governmental affairs.

Josaitis told me some family members wanted to take her children away thinking she had gone mad when she announced they were moving into the city not long after the riot.

I later watched her handle crisis after crisis with grace and steely determination.

When Focus: HOPE was struck by a tornado that caused millions of dollars of damage, it was gale force Josaitis who helped marshal forces to rebuild it.

When Cunningham died of cancer in 1997, she continued to beat the drum through brutal economic times.

She worked until the end with William Jones Jr., now CEO, who continues Focus: HOPE’s mission.

“We met when I came back to Michigan (for AT&T),” said the Economic Club’s Chappell. “We became fast friends.”

“I knew she was worried because there are so many who need their help,” Chappell told me of her final conversations.

An army of folks will gather Saturday to pay tribute to the woman brimming with optimism, who never lost her smile or twinkle in her blue eyes.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead could have been talking about Josaitis along with Cunningham when she said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

For more on the Light for HOPE Eleanor M. Josaitis tribute at the Detroit Marriott Renaissance Center, call 313-494-5500 or go to www.focushope.edu.

Contact Carol Cain: 313-222-6732 or clcain@cbs.com. Cain hosts \”Michigan Matters\” at 11 a.m. Sundays on WWJ-TV CBS Detroit (Channel 62).

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