The fire never left Josepha Eyre’s belly. She was a woman of endurance.
And the work of Eyre, founder of the nonprofit Women’s Bean Project in Denver, will endure beyond her death Monday of complications from the new coronavirus. She was 89.
Growing up in Denver, Christina Eyre, one of Eyre’s four children, said the family would spend a day every week crafting sandwiches for the needy. During holidays, new faces would appear: guests from Sudan, Eritrea, Uganda, Ukraine and Morocco. Some would leave that night and others would stay for months, she said.
Their family wasn’t quite like other families, Christina Eyre said.
“We were different but I didn’t realize until later how good that different was,” Christina Eyre said.
The children grew up with stories from their mother and extended family members of survival during the Nazi occupation of Holland, Christina Eyre said.
Nazi officers commandeered the Eyre family home in Nijmegen for their wives, and there was no sense of when the occupation would end, Christina Eyre said. And then there was the mischief. Misleading Nazis who asked for directions, pointing them in the wrong direction so they would lose their way.
Two of Josepha Eyre’s brothers were held in internment camps during the war, and though they would survive, another of her two siblings were killed in a bombing.
“It wasn’t just her stories, it was my uncle’s stories and my aunt’s stories. We would hear all kinds of things,” Christina Eyre said. “Like the horror of discovering her brother and sister’s bodies after the bombing. They were identified by their shoes.”
Josepha Eyre’s family fled Europe to the United States. She was a teenager at the time and didn’t speak a lick of English, Christina Eyre said. In school, she was given the nickname Jossy, which she carried until the end.
She learned firsthand what it meant to lose control and live at the mercy of your own surroundings, to rebuild a life, Christina Eyre said. Like her nickname, the lessons stuck.
“It’s sort of hard to separate who she became as a person, as an activist, from that early history,” Christina Eyre said.
In the United States, Josepha Eyre became a nurse and headed west to California on the way to a job, Christina Eyre said. After passing through a “traumatizing” snowstorm in Kansas, she stopped in Denver on a particularly warm and beautiful day and decided to stay.
In her 40s, Eyre picked up distance running. Later she turned to swimming, a habit she maintained into her early 80s, Christina Eyre said. In her 50s, with all four of her children out of the house she went back to school, ultimately earning a master’s degree in social work, Christina Eyre said.
“That sort of fire never left her,” she said.
“Change the trajectory of their lives”
And in 1989, Eyre founded the Women’s Bean Project, a nonprofit organization that continues to this day, helping women experiencing homelessness, suffering from addiction and other challenges by providing jobs manufacturing food.
The idea is to help women who don’t feel as though they have a lot of control over their lives, to give them a sense of control, said Tamra Ryan, CEO of the Women’s Bean Project.
“That was something she could very much relate to,” Ryan said. “She was driven by this idea that if she could teach the women by actually doing, that would give them the ability to change the trajectory of their lives.”
So with $500 out of her own pocket, Eyre bought beans for a skeleton crew to make 10-bean soup, Ryan said. Demand grew and so did the team. The 10-bean soup remains a best seller.
“The first time someone asked for a case of soup, which at the time was 12 units, she couldn’t believe anybody wanted that many,” Ryan said. “And today we ship in pallets, which is about 1,400 units.”
Even after she stepped down from her role with the Women’s Bean Project, Ryan said she remained amazed with each of Eyre’s visits.
“There were times when I’d watch her interact with the women and it made me wonder if she had the elements of what Mother Teresa had,” Ryan said. “When she was speaking with an individual women they were the only people in the room. It was connection beyond empathy. It was, ‘I want to hear your story and I want to feel who you are and what you care about and what your life is and where you are going.’ ”
“My guardian angel”
That’s a side of Josepha Eyre that Mariya Golovanich caught when she immigrated to the United States from Ukraine in 1998. It would be four years before Golovanich said her husband and two children could join her, but in that time, Eyre — who she met through church — took her in for months, helped her find work and more.
“She really was my American mom,” Golovanich said. “I could come and talk to her about everything. I knew I would get the best, the most kind, the most understanding advice and attitudes ever.”
Once while Eyre was healing from a hip replacement surgery, Golovanich said she helped carry her groceries inside and refused to take money for the assistance.
So Eyre opened a bank account for each of Golovanich’s children, and by the time they arrived in the United States there was more than $200 waiting for each of them, Golovanich said.
“She was always like my guardian angel in every aspect of this American life,” she said.
The two bonded over their European upbringings and challenges as immigrants, and Eyre extended that empathy toward most everyone she knew, Golovanich said.
“She never lost that touch and that feeling toward poor people, toward people,” she said.
If Eyre wanted a single idea shared, Christina Eyre said, it would probably be “that you don’t have to be great or important or a famous person to change the world.”
“If you can look around, you can be inspired by the situation or the challenges other people face and turn that into an expression of love and commitment and dedication to your fellow human beings,” she added.
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