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Published: Friday, 6/25/2010

With the right focus, there is still hope for Detroit

These are grim days for Detroit, the city that was once Michigan's shining jewel.

Unemployment is sky-high. Mayor Dave Bing is struggling to pay the bills and provide basic services in a city with too few resources and too many needs.

Yet there's still hope for the future in an aged but gleaming complex on the city's northwest side. There, renovated industrial buildings stretch for 40 acres along Oakman Boulevard.

This is Focus: Hope, where through the decades, they've trained thousands of poor kids for jobs, first as machinists, then increasingly as technology specialists for the new economy. Often, they first have to teach even Detroit high school graduates how to read and do math at a fairly elementary level.

But they offer hope, rational, practical hope, that if you are willing to work hard, learn, and stay drug free, they will help you acquire the skills to support yourself.

Nearly half a century after it was started by a suburban housewife and a forceful Roman Catholic priest, Focus: Hope is still going strong.

It's never been easy, and it's harder than ever to raise money in the town of the pulverized domestic-auto industry, in the teeth of the worst recession in many years.

"But what else would we do?" asks Eleanor Josaitis, one of Focus: Hope's two founders, with a twinkle in her eye. After all, at 79, she is way too young to retire.

Timothy Duperron, her chief operating officer nods. Now 67, he came here after a long career at Ford and has had to struggle to redefine what Focus: Hope does in a changing economy.

"We've had to reinvent ourselves," he said.

But he sees the mission as more necessary than ever. Focus: Hope was born months after the devastating riots of 1967. The great fear was that it would happen again the next summer.

So Ms. Josaitis, then a blue-collar suburban housewife with five kids, and the Rev. William Cunningham, a charismatic and forceful inner-city Roman Catholic priest, teamed up.

They thought the best thing they could do to help people make it through the next long, hot summer was to feed them. So they did. They stockpiled food in the church basement, and on March 8, 1968, wrote a mission statement: "Recognizing the dignity and beauty of every person, we pledge intelligent and practical action to overcome racism, poverty, and injustice," it begins.

Today, that still appears on every piece of Focus: Hope stationery.

Other cities exploded the next year. But not Detroit.

However, it wasn't long before they realized feeding people wasn't enough. People needed jobs. And thousands lacked any real skills, even basic literacy. So the founders decided they were in it for the long haul.

Originally, their project was called Focus: Summer Hope. Then they dropped the Summer.

Ms. Josaitis proved to be a master at organizing. Father Bill was a master arm-twister, who successfully cajoled retired executives to come design and run programs. They put together a Machinist Training Institute, and gradually expanded to their present campus. Focus: Hope had more than 800 workers and trainees by the late 1990s, when a series of tragedies struck.

Father Bill died of cancer in May, 1997. Barely a month later, the campus was struck by a tornado. Nobody died, but there was terrific damage. They pulled things together, rebuilt, and went on.

Then, the automotive industry began to collapse. Machinist jobs they were training people to fill began to be outsourced overseas. Hundreds had to be laid off; Focus: Hope shrank to less than half its size. But the organization largely reinvented itself, again.

Today, Focus: Hope is doing what economists say Michigan itself needs to do: Reinvent and diversify.

They still train some machinists, but they now have a weatherization program to train people for the emerging green society of the future.

There's an Information Technologies Center, now their biggest program, that can lead to a college degree.

But in another sign of the times, Focus: Hope spends a lot of time and money simply teaching hundreds of high school graduates how to read, write, and do simple math.

They haven't abandoned their earlier mission, either. While they are now running a Center for Advanced Technologies, they are still feeding 45,605 hungry people every month from four food centers tastefully designed to look like supermarkets.

"Nobody knows everything we do, really," said Mr. Duperron.

There is sadness, too.

"We train people to earn a family-supporting wage, and the first thing they do is leave town," he added, though he knows that for many, there is no choice.

Yet Mr. Duperron said he doesn't plan to go anywhere. He calculates that at a minimum, Focus: Hope graduates have earned $1.2 billion in wages, adding value to a local economy that needs it.

"We're not going away," said Ms. Josaitis.

That's good news for a city that badly needs focus, and most of all, hope.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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