The 2011 Crawford Prize Recipient
Eleanor M. Josaitis
It was a great honor for the National Recreation Foundation to present Eleanor M. Josaitis with the 2011 Robert W. Crawford Achievement Prize for her inspirational work and numerous contributions to the Detroit Metropolitan Area.
It has been over 40 years since Josaitis, along with the late Father William T. Cunningham (1930-1997), founded Focus: HOPE in response to the race riots that erupted in Detroit the summer of 1967. The initial intent of the former housewife and Father Cunningham were to prevent further rioting in the summer of 1968, by bringing together people of all backgrounds and races for a large fair in Downtown Detroit in order to celebrate their common humanity peacefully with food and fun. Since then Josaitis and Focus: HOPE have taken on a number of community issues, affecting everything from federal food program policies, to education, to providing recreational opportunities, and workforce development practices, all while following an underlying principle of bridging race and class divides. Their modest begins have grown into a nationally renowned civil and human rights organization. Of particular interest here is the way in which Josaitis and Focus: HOPE have focused on children's health and utilized parks and recreation in order to achieve these goals. Provided below are just a few of the many examples of the work that Josaitis and Focus: HOPE have been involved with throughout the years.
As one of the first undertakings of the organization, Josaitis and Father Cunningham showed evidence of systematic race discrimination in grocery stores and pharmacies in Detroit. Black Detroiters living in the downtown area were paying more for groceries and prescription medications compared to the predominantly white population living in the suburbs. Paired with scientific research that showed the permanent limitations on children's brain capacity caused by hunger in the early years, Josaitis became an advocate for healthy child development and nutrition. With evidence in hand, she and Father Cunningham went to Washington DC to begin a long crusade against hunger and injustice against children. They continue to offer food programs with free monthly supplement of food to 42,000 pregnant women, postpartum mothers, children under the age of six, and senior citizens 60 years of age and older.
Josaitis knew the importance of nutritious food in a child's development. She also knew that it was important that children have opportunities to play and explore recreation in a safe, clean, and secure environment, which was in short supply in post-riot Detroit. In 1987, Focus: HOPE opened its Center for Children, a world-class early childhood education and childcare facility that serves children as young as six weeks to as old as 12 years through programs running before and after school. Other youth based programming includes the Community Arts Department that was established in 1995 and enrolled over 1,000 youth in 2010, providing arts and media-based development programs that nurture the importance of education, cultivates self-awareness, develops leadership skills, and encourages an understanding of multiculturalism. In addition, Focus: HOPE has a Youth Academic Enrichment program that provides assistance to partnering schools for providing summer camps to elementary students, and Generation of Promise, established in 1990 that is an urban/suburban diversity and leadership development program for high school juniors. She also led Focus: HOPE as it took down buildings that were deemed unsafe, remediated formerly polluted industrial sites so they could be put to more productive use in the community, and built and maintained parks on its campus, which is along a former industrial strip in the middle of a large neighborhood in the center of Detroit. This work has expanded to include providing safety instruction and resources for youth across the Central Woodward area of Detroit and operating youth programs on public safety through environmental design. In 1997, a tornado swept across the neighborhood, leaving a $18 million trail of damages for Focus: HOPE in which the organization was able to turn around and secure the necessary resources to building the Focus: HOPE Pocket Park which remains a gem of the community and nexus of neighborhood activity. When the city failed to adequately ensure safety for children in a public park in the neighborhood, she led Focus: HOPE, local businesses, and volunteers to adopt, improve, and maintain the park, where today children and families play daily.
More recently, the Hope Village Initiative was established in 2009 as a comprehensive community change initiative and neighborhood revitalization effort. This program aims to provide educational pathways and strong support services in order to help break the poverty cycle in this area. As part of this initiative, the organization saw that a local Detroit Public School in the neighborhood, the Paul Robeson/Malcolm X Academy, was in need of a playground. Josaitis saw the potential and worked with volunteers across the region as well as college interns to help construct a new playground at the school. In addition, the organization is also involving children in the community gardening projects where they are able to interact with the environment around them.
There are few organizations that have tried and succeeded in impacting their community in as many far-reaching ways as Focus: HOPE and the reason for taking on such a diverse and holistic approach comes down to the idea that in order to eliminate racism, people need to have educations, jobs, and opportunities in their lives. No matter what the issue or what obstacles present themselves, Josaitis is determined to see that all people have the opportunity to reach their full potential. She knows that for this to be true, children must have every opportunity to learn, play, and explore their world and that recreation is a huge part of that. Josaitis has provided tireless leadership in pursuit of a better future for the children, families, and seniors of Detroit.