“Many of us look around and see things we don’t like, but we don’t necessarily do anything about it. Jossy did.”
In 2020, Tamra Ryan wrote this in her memorial to our founder, Josepha “Jossy” Eyre. Jossy died due to complications with COVID-19 in April of that year. It is a story all too familiar to us in 2023.
The story of how Jossy founded Women’s Bean Project is just as familiar and ingrained in the memory of every Women’s Bean Project employee. It is a part of every tour, outreach event, and explanation of what we are. The script goes a little something like this:
In 1989, Jossy Eyre went back to school later in life for her master’s degree in social work. She was in her late fifties by then and interning at The Gathering Place, a day shelter for women and children in downtown Denver that is still in operation today. She noticed a pattern in the women who would use their services. They would receive support from the caseworkers at the shelter, get a job, and be back to the shelter in just a few weeks after losing that job. So, with $500 of her own money Jossy bought raw materials, hired two women, and started packaging ten bean soup in an empty basement room of The Gathering Place. She taught the women job skills like accountability, teamwork, and punctuality. After the 1989 holiday season, Jossy had made $6,100 in sales and the two women she had hired never used the shelter’s services again. Jossy knew she had something special.
Most of the time, that is the end of it. What is rarely explored, and what I set out to find when I started this series, was the life behind the history. How did Jossy’s life lead her to found one of the longest running nonprofit social enterprises in Colorado? What was the humanity behind the script?
Who was the woman behind the story?
Jossy Eyre grew up in Holland, and moved to America after her village was liberated in World War II. Perhaps more than any born-American could, she knew what living in poverty and powerlessness was like. She then spent her life in pursuit of empowering women across the globe. She made it her life’s mission to put power back into the hands of disenfranchised women, the people affected most by circumstance and systematic injustice. She did work in Africa for a spell and spent her later years studying to be a nun with the Sisters of Loretto. Her work gained interest from celebrity activists like Bonnie Raitt, who hosted a meet and greet with Women’s Bean Project participants in 1995 and has continued her support for many years.
A life of service and devotion to her cause seemed to be an innate part of her personality. Perhaps it was not the presence of the Project but of Jossy herself that made the most impact on women in those early years. Indominable spirit, determination, magnetism. Any time a long-tenured WBP employee is asked to describe Jossy, wonder and admiration blooms across their expression. It is as if her energy was too large for words to describe, despite her small frame.
Jossy restarted her relationship with Women’s Bean Project in 2005, nine years after her departure from the project in 1996. Her call to Tamra Ryan was simple, perfectly fitting for her straightforward personality:
“I hear you’re doing good things over there, and I’d like to come for a visit and meet you.”
Jossy continued to visit from then on, despite her growing age. When she could no longer drive to the Firehouse location, she would ride her bike. When she could no longer ride her bike, her daughter Tina would drive her there. Though there were occasionally differences in opinion between Jossy and the board, she continued to show up for the women in the program.
Women’s Bean Project has undoubtedly changed over thirty-four years of operation. Though we may no longer be the cozy one-room nonprofit that Jossy started, her original mission and energy bleeds into everything we do. I never met Jossy personally, and many current and future employees and participants never will. But that indomitable spirit lives on in the women we support, and their determination to do better for themselves and their families. Her reach is still felt, and her $500 idea has evolved into a mission that has served over a thousand women in Colorado.
“It’s an idea with sticking power,” Tamra Ryan muses, now three years after Jossy’s death.