The two people most responsible for my passion and commitment to improving opportunities for all children are no longer with us in the physical sense.
Father Bill Cunningham, my high school English and Drama teacher before co-founding Focus: HOPE in Detroit, died in 1997. A tornado ripped through the Focus: HOPE campus a few weeks later. His partner and co-founder Eleanor Josaitis died the morning of August 9 just as a heavy storm rolled through the Detroit area. Both have left us with remarkable legacies of passion and caring for children and families faced with daunting challenges, including dire poverty.
Together with another Catholic priest, Jerry Fraser, Cunningham and Josaitis founded a unique civil rights organization – Focus: HOPE – in 1968 that served as the conscience of the metropolitan Detroit community and worked tirelessly on practical ways to give hope and to forge opportunity for the forgotten and marginalized.
I was a volunteer with Focus: HOPE from its inception until August 1969 when the priest and the “suburban housewife” as Eleanor became known conspired to get me hired at the Detroit Free Press as a copy boy. While I struggled to become a professional journalist, Eleanor and Bill were finding ways to feed malnourished children in the city with surplus food that the federal government had paid farmers to produce but then went to waste. Their efforts convinced the federal government to address the issue of chronic hunger and to expand the surplus food commodities program in Detroit and other cities.
Recognizing that children needed parents who had jobs and economic security, Eleanor and Bill also began a skilled-trades school that helped lift tens of thousands of people out of poverty and into the middle class. The impact on the children of those folks is profound.
In the 1970s, Focus: HOPE created a program to address racial tensions in Detroit high schools – then predominantly white – by training ethnically diverse groups of teenagers about ways to counteract the evil of racism.
Eleanor’s advocacy on behalf of children was relentless and optimistic, despite the obstacles that she and Cunningham faced overcoming a lack of government investment and public support that mitigated the challenges of poverty for children and their families.
This is how Eleanor put it when she testified before Detroit City Council on December 10, 1974, just one talk in a career of moving speeches to help children:
“Hunger in Detroit hurts babies’ brains, chipping off I.Q.,” she told the Council. “Hunger softens bones and puts toddlers on bowed legs. Hunger twists emotions and leaves children hostile, hating, hurt for life. Hunger fills classrooms with tired, listless pupils of the poor. Hunger is anemia, rickets, mental retardation, hostility. Hunger is death by premature birth and infant disease.”
That was 37 years ago, and Eleanor’s efforts to improve the lives of children did not stop until her death from cancer. Over the decades, she and Cunningham made countless trips to Washington, educated thousands of people who visited the Focus: HOPE campus in Detroit and fought hard on behalf of others, especially for children, with little concern about their own well-being. They challenged government officials, corporate titans and insurance companies to do better for the poor.
Together, they built a movement of people who marched, wrote letters and demanded action of government and the public to counter the long-term effects of racism and build opportunity for all.
Of all the lessons about child advocacy that I learned from Father Cunningham and Eleanor Josaitis, the most important is this: Advocacy is not a one-time activity in which someone makes one phone call or sends a single e-mail to a policymaker. True child advocacy requires persistence, passion, patience and hope beyond measure. Influencing public policy to better all of our lives – while taking practical action to alleviate suffering and eliminating obstacles – was what Eleanor Josaitis and Bill Cunningham were all about.
And while we face daunting challenges today in ensuring that all children throughout the state grow up healthy, safe, well-educated and prepared to join a creative and skilled workforce, I will count it as a success if a little bit of Eleanor and Bill lives on in the work we do at Michigan’s Children.
Thank you, Eleanor Josaitis.