Editor’s note: Ashley Woods wrote and produced this story for WDET. It aired in 2007.
In the aftermath of July 1967’s civil disturbance, a Catholic priest and one of his parishioners began a charity in the basement of Detroit’s Church of the Madonna. Since then, Focus: HOPE has provided food, education, training, and jobs to Detroit residents. It started with the vision of a young woman.
“Father and I walked the streets the day after the riots and said ‘we’ve got to do something,'” says Eleanor Josaitis.
For more than 40 years, she worked 12 hours a day in Focus: HOPE’s office on Oakman Boulevard. The organization, which started in a basement, now spreads across 40 acres. Josaitis was always sensitive to the questions of race and poverty. She remembers weeping as she watched Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, her hero, led a civil rights march in Mississippi. So after the Detroit riot, Josaitis moved her family from the suburb of Taylor to an integrated neighborhood just six minutes away from the church.
“When we moved back into the city, my mother hired an attorney to take my five children away from me,” Josaitis remembers. “My father-in-law disowned me and my brother-in-law asked me to use my maiden name so I wouldn’t embarrass the family. And it wasn’t lack of love, it was that they thought I had just lost it. Why would I want to do this?”
Josaitis had bonded with her weekend pastor, Fr. William Cunningham, over their passion for the civil rights movement. In the beginning, they focused on organizing outings to bring black and white families together. Josaitis says they soon turned their focus to complaints from people in the city who claimed the local supermarkets conspired to drive up food prices.
“We got 500 volunteers in the city, 500 volunteers in the suburbs, and did a very sophisticated survey” Josaitis recalls.
“We went into the chain stores, the mom-and-pops, the independent stores when nobody knew we were coming. We would go in and take down all of the prices.” — Eleanor Josaitis.
The study, called Hope 68, found Detroit residents were paying 30 to 40 percent more for their groceries than suburban customers. Chain stores were also dumping old meat and produce from the suburbs into the city. The national media picked up the story and 28 store managers were fired.
Josaitis says malnutrition was a devastating problem among pregnant mothers and young children in the city. So, Focus: HOPE decided to start feeding them. Tom Armstead didn’t care for his job at Chrysler’s Warren Truck Assembly plant, where he was among the first black foremen the automaker hired. His wife attended the Church of the Madonna, and Fr. Cunningham quickly recruited him to volunteer. The priest soon offered Armstead a job with Focus: HOPE, which wasn’t the career path he had envisioned.
“I was growing up in the ’60s and integration was starting to take place,” Armstead remembers. “And I thought I was a pretty hot shot and there were a lot of opportunities for folks like me to do whatever I wanted to do. And my thought was that I was gonna move up within the corporate world somewhere and do OK for myself and have a big job someday.”
But he didn’t. Armstead says despite his visions of future success, he was passionate about helping the community in Detroit. His wife also wanted him to take the job. So, Armstead says, he took a pay cut and a chance. He saw an opportunity when he found out the government had sent specially-made food for pregnant mothers and young children suffering from malnutrition in the city.
“And it was shipped out to Wayne County, to the old Eloise Hospital,” Armstead says. “And it sat on the railroads there for weeks and months with no trucks, no warehouses, no people to help distribute the food.”
Focus: HOPE took over the operation with Armstead at the helm. A year later, the city of Detroit asked the organization to run the program permanently. They were serving 1,000 pregnant mothers and young children per month when Eleanor Josaitis got a phone call from an elderly woman who asked, whispering, if Focus: HOPE had any food.
“I went on about this fabulous program for pregnant women, nursing mothers, children,” Josaitis says. “I’m bragging up a storm and there was a long pause and then she screamed into the phone at me, ‘I’m 72 years old and you want me to get pregnant before you’ll help me?'”
After that phone call, Josaitis and Fr. Cunningham wanted to change the program to also feed struggling senior citizens. They testified before members of Congress 32 times in the next five years. They were, as she says, literally begging for food. Eventually, the food program was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They now serve thousands of Detroiters every month. But the road hasn’t always been smooth for the organization. Tom Armstead says Cunningham’s decision to accept contracts from the Department of Defense during the peace movement in the early 1970s was controversial. He says area religious leaders, including Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, protested the decision in the press, calling the $30 million contract “tainted” and “blood money”.
“The reporter then came to Cunningham and told him what Bishop Gumbleton had said about our relationship with the Defense Department,” Armstead says. “And, of course, Fr. Cunningham explained to him that we weren’t making bullets and other equipment like that. We were working with the automotive command, making vehicles and parts of vehicles. And that the money was not tainted. ‘Just tainted enough’ was his response to the reporter.”
Focus: HOPE workers all use one word when they describe Cunningham: visionary. Eleanor Josaitis says he hated that word. She says he took risks, like the time he boxed Muhammad Ali to raise money for the charity. Or when he refused to accept out-dated computer equipment for the machinist training institute, because his students deserved to learn on the best computers available. So the company agreed to donate new equipment instead. Armstead says Cunningham’s passion was the source of his power.
“He could tell you the story about Focus: HOPE and our needs and bring you to tears, and bring himself to tears, because of his passion about what we were doing here,” Armstead says. “He was so charismatic. He had daunting brown eyes and a huge smile that lit up the room when he walked into it.”
Fr. Cunningham died in 1997 after a battle with cancer and pneumonia. Eleanor Josaitis said he didn’t want any monuments or streets renamed in his honor, just a promise that his co-workers would continue his life’s work. Josaitis died in 2011.
(This story originally aired in 2007).