Josepha “Jossy” Eyre may be best known in Denver for starting the Women’s Bean Project, but her fascinating life and generous spirit extended far beyond bean soup and baking mixes. From a childhood spent in Nazi-occupied Holland to decades of empowering women in the United States, Eyre’s experiences and contributions were outsized. On April 20, at age 89, Eyre died of complications from COVID-19.
“She wasn’t going to let anything get in her way,” says Tamra Ryan, CEO of Women’s Bean Project. “Even as she got older, she was not wrapping it up. She was still doing what she wanted to do on her own terms. She was a force, and I loved that about her.”
Eyre grew up in Nazi-occupied Nijmegen, Holland, during World War II, where she lost siblings and her family home to American bombs. She came to the United States as a teenager, but that traumatic experience stuck with Eyre, inspiring her work to raise up others who’d lost everything.
“That loss, plus the war experience, gave me a sense that things weren’t right with my world,” Eyre said of her childhood in a 1994 Chicago Tribune story. “That was a major influence why I decided to work with women who are disenfranchised.”
When Eyre went back to school in her late 50s for a master’s degree in social work, part of the degree requirements were to embed in a nonprofit. She volunteered at a daytime homeless shelter for women and kids, where she saw the same women returning again and again. The women could get jobs, but they couldn’t keep them.
Eyre arrived in Denver in the early 1960s, a time which Ryan believes shaped Eyre’s social justice mentality and activism. She truly walked the walk—not just feeding people in need but opening her home to them; she didn’t run a homeless shelter, she moved into it herself. Eyre had seen a need to teach struggling women how to work and stay employed, and so in 1989, the Women’s Bean Project was born.
“She was always thinking about how the empowerment of employment could help someone move beyond their circumstances into self-sufficiency,” Ryan says. “She started the organization making 10-bean soup as a means to provide work. “I know, because she told me, that she never imagined it would become what it is today.”
What Women’s Bean Project is today is an organization that has trained and given hope and employment to more than 1,000 women experiencing homelessness, transitioning out of incarceration, or recovering from substance abuse. A year after graduating from the nonprofit’s social enterprise program, 96 percent of those women are still employed. And even now, with $2 million in annual revenue across a vast product line, that first 10-bean soup is still the company’s top seller; the Women’s Bean Project has sold more than one million packs of it over the past 30 years.
Even as she got older, Eyre stayed involved with the business. Ryan tells of Eyre, maybe in her early 80s at the time, riding a bike there when she could no longer drive. And when she arrived, Eyre had a way of connecting with the program participants in a way no one else could. Always engaging and magnetic, she had an incredible talent of connecting with women from all walks of life.
“We all look around and see things we don’t like, but not all of us do something about it,” Ryan says. “And that to me is the thing that defines Jossy. We honor her legacy every day when we go to work.”