Detroit Focus: HOPE co-founder Eleanor Josaitis dies at 79 Civil rights activist believed in human dignity and helping people

By David Runk

Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- Eleanor Josaitis, who co-founded the social services organization Focus: HOPE in the wake of Detroit's 1967 riots and worked to overcome racism, poverty and injustice, died Tuesday. She was 79.

Josaitis died at Angela Hospice in Livonia with family members by her side, her son Mark Josaitis said. She was diagnosed with peritoneal cancer last year and had undergone chemotherapy, he said. She had also broken her hip during a fall.

"Eleanor was a stalwart of community activism," Detroit Mayor Dave Bing said in a statement. "She has touched the lives of countless Detroiters and built a legacy of hope and help that will last for generations."

Eleanor Josaitis and the Rev. William Cunningham founded Focus: HOPE in 1968 after the riots that widened a rift between Detroit's black and white residents. The group offers job training, as well as food programs for the poor and elderly. Cunningham died in 1997.

"She really believed in human dignity and helping people develop skills to be proud of," Mark Josaitis told The Associated Press.

Josaitis became a civil rights activist after watching a televised report on violence against civil rights marchers in Alabama in 1963, according to Focus: HOPE. She served as CEO of the group for nine years after Cunningham's death, and remained active in its work.

"There's no greater way to eliminate racism and poverty than to see that people have education, skills, jobs and opportunities in life," she has said.

Josaitis was credited for her work as the practical operations manager of Focus: HOPE. She wasn't deterred when the group's offices were firebombed in the 1970s, and she helped it recover after a tornado caused $18 million in damages to Focus: HOPE's campus.

"Her kindness was so genuine and she didn't hold it back from anybody," Mark Josaitis said.

U.S. Rep. John Dingell of Michigan described her as remarkable.

"Josaitis was an inspiration to us all and her ever present passion will be missed on the Detroit landscape," Dingell said in a statement. "Eleanor was about changing the world one person at a time."

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said she was a "tireless and devoted leader" who served the entire state.

"Her compassion and resolve live on through the work of Focus: HOPE and the countless men, women and children whose lives were forever changed for the better because of her," Snyder said in statement.

Survivors include Josaitis' husband of 55 years, Donald; children Mark, Michael, Thomas, Janet Denk and Mary Lendzion; seven grandchildren; sisters Margaret Krueger and Janet Lang; and brother Louis Reed.

Funeral details were being finalized Tuesday. Visitation was planned at the Church of the Madonna, Cunningham's former parish in Detroit, Mark Josaitis said. A funeral was expected to be held at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Detroit.

Memorial contributions may be made to the "Eleanor Josaitis Fund for Focus: HOPE."

Published: Wed, Aug 10, 2011


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