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Through changes at Focus: HOPE, faith endures

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
  • In 2015, Focus: HOPE had a $2.9M shortfall against revenues of $24.3M, and 215 employees.
  • Having once expanded to 2 million square feet along Oakman Boulevard, Focus:HOPE has retrenched.
  • Two decades ago, the budget was $62.5 million and the work force of 726.

Sarah Larabell wants to become an LPN and then an RN and then an RN with a BSN, and after that maybe she’ll study some more and be a nurse practitioner.

For now, she’s at Focus: HOPE in Detroit, taking classes through Oakland University and taking the first steps toward her dreams.

Dreams have always been a staple at Focus: HOPE. Also a staple: staples, on the order of fruit juice, cheese and canned vegetables, through a pioneering set of food pantries that serve 41,000 people every month. Likewise early childhood education and a commitment to simple fairness, which isn’t always as simple as it sounds.

Two months into its 50th year, Focus: HOPE remains one of Metro Detroit’s most recognizable and resilient nonprofits. Its story is legend, its roots are deep and its reach is wide.

As it has sailed on, however, the tides have changed.

The skilled trade it most famously taught has been in decline, at least this side of China. The founders died. The innovative parts-making contracts with car companies have expired.

There have been layoffs. Funding cuts. Budget deficits. More layoffs. Having expanded in the glory days to 2 million square feet of space along Oakman Boulevard, it has retrenched.

Two decades ago, the budget was $62.5 million and the work force numbered 726. In 2015, the year of its last tax filing, there was a $2.9 million shortfall against revenues of $24.3 million, and the current employee count stands at about 215.

There are murmurs of further “rightsizing,” a term that rarely seems right to the people affected. Many of the jobs programs that used to be a gateway to the middle class are now midway to the gateway.

“It’s all hands on deck right now,” says CEO Jason Lee, who came aboard in August. The organization will launch its golden anniversary celebration with the start of its fiscal year in October, and while holding off on specifics, he says, “We’re working feverishly to do some different things in that space.”

Focus: HOPE CEO Jason Lee

Early reasons for optimism, he says, include the large crowd last month at the annual Heroes for HOPE gala and a projected budget surplus of $750,00 to $1 million for 2016.

Then there are the standard reasons for optimism, among them an eager, ambitious nursing student from Livonia.

Larabell, 25, has worked in the pit at an oil-change shop and in the wards of a nursing care center.

She has an associate’s degree and a certified nursing assistant diploma from Schoolcraft College. She also has an abiding desire to become a registered nurse.

“I tried to get into other LPN programs,” she says, looking as far away as Toledo, but the competition was furious and some of the wait lists were years long. Fortuitously, Oakland University had signed a five-year agreement with Focus: HOPE in late 2014, leasing space in which it built simulated hospital rooms.

“I would have lost hope,” Larabell suspects, had a door not finally opened.

Instead, she finds herself in a yearlong sprint with 20 classmates, among them single moms, an EMT and a Detroit police officer with three kids — all carrying on a Focus: HOPE tradition.

Roots in ’60s

Focus: HOPE was founded by a handsome, charismatic priest and a mother of five from Taylor eight months after the 1967 Detroit riot.

Father William Cunningham roared into the public eye on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, sent by God or a Hollywood casting agency. Eleanor Josaitis and her ever-patient husband, Don, bought a big Tudor in the city when other families were heading out of town.

Their project began as Focus Summer HOPE with one immediate goal — preventing a sequel to the riot — and one that was more long term, defeating racism through opportunity.

Ultimately, the organization dropped its middle name and started adding things like Head Start, job training and remedial math and English classes. Josaitis even taught mealtime etiquette.

Cunningham, the charmer to Josaitis’ muscle, “had the heads of the Big Three on speed dial,” says Jack Kresnak, the author of “Hope for the City: A Catholic Priest, a Suburban Housewife and Their Desperate Effort to Save Detroit.” “There was no one else like him, not only in his character and charisma, but also his ability to raise money.”

Only Cunningham, Kresnak says, could have cured a shortfall by calling the head of the C.S. Mott Foundation and asking for $600,000 — by the next day.

That’s either an encouraging reminder that every nonprofit faces occasional storms, or a distressing reminder that Cunningham has been gone since 1997 and Josaitis since 2011.

Changing jobs landscape

With the auto business struggling, tool-and-die jobs moving offshore and funding on the wane, Focus: HOPE had mothballed its renowned machinist training program until a fresh class began this spring. It took a more public stumble in January, with the announcement that 120 assembly workers from a for-profit employee-leasing subsidiary were being laid off.

More than 40 Focus: HOPE staffers were dismissed in late 2016, part of a retreat that included $3.2 million in expired or unrenewed grants the year before.

“At some point, it looks bad from the public perception standpoint,” says Matthew Downey, the director of nonprofit services at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University. In many cases, “the workers being displaced are the focus of the mission” — the instructors and former trainees from the jobs programs.

The jobs themselves have tended to become more entry-level over the years, a reflection of a service-oriented marketplace. With help from corporate and civic sponsors, Focus: HOPE has helped prepare beginning IT staffers, truckers, patient care associates and patient sitters, who keep tabs on potentially problematic patients for about $9 an hour.

The medical positions are part of the Detroit at Work initiative announced by Mayor Mike Duggan in his State of the City speech in February. The goal is to train 240 Detroiters to fill roles at Detroit Medical Center, Henry Ford Health System and St. John Providence hospitals.

“We’re excited about it,” says Teresa Rodges, executive director of the Oakland University School of Nursing Continuing Education program. “It’s better than working at McDonald’s, and it’s a gateway to working in health care. It’s our goal to move them up.”

Lee says he sees opportunity in fields like robotics and welding. Potential corporate partners can call anytime.

Health care “isn’t perfect,” the CEO concedes. Compared to some of the past programs, “it’s more steps” to a comfortable living. “But this is also a different time frame.”

Lee’s early emphases include better marketing, a refreshed website, and selling off pieces of the empire amassed by Cunningham and Josaitis. It’s a delicate dance, he says.

“We need to clarify our message around food, careers and community,” Lee says — particularly the parts of the community that aren’t trendy yet — and to not only teach technology, but utilize it.

“Are there more efficient ways?” he asks, and then he answers himself with a sigh.

“There’s lots of paper around here.”

‘School is my life’

There’s also a fair amount of canned meat, in unlabeled 24-ounce tins marked “Beef with juices.” At the food distribution center, Luvenia Ryans of Detroit passes it by.

Ryans, 69, is pushing her walker with one hand and a shopping cart with the other. “I’m not a big eater,” she says, and combined with what she picks up when her niece drives her to the grocery store once a month, the agency’s Community Supplemental Food Program gets her through each month.

When the pantry opened, the federal project was intended only for mothers and young children. It took several years and multiple lobbying trips to Washington, D.C., but Focus: HOPE managed to expand the program to seniors, and it’s in use in 48 states.

Director Frank Kubik says they’ve learned a few things across two generations. Always stock plenty of orange juice, for instance, because that’s what old people use to wash down their pills.

A short walk away, Larabell is also learning. “School is my life,” she says. “I’m 100 percent school.”

The last of three daughters of a welder and a homemaker, she was raised to value education and to realize it wouldn’t be easy.

She keeps a sort of mental checklist of everything she wants to accumulate once she’s a full-fledged RN: a house, a retirement fund, new fishing rods. She has never seen the ocean, never been on an airplane, never taken a vacation that didn’t involve tents.

It’s all about hopes and dreams. “The dream is set in stone,” she says — and the HOPE is in capital letters, everywhere she looks.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn