For many women, a purse is more than where they carry their wallet and keys — it’s a life kit.
“I think all of us know that the minute we before we walk out the door we grab our purse, right? And in that purse, it could be anything from your kids’ photos, maybe a trinket that they gave you, a rosary,” said Maria Castro, founder of Love Purse. “And so when you have to leave sometimes in the middle of the night because of danger and you just run out, you have nothing. How do you pick up the pieces? How do you get back that purse that meant so much to you?”
A little more than a year ago, a chat with a friend sent Castro on an errand that turned into a movement. Castro recalled her conversation with longtime friend, Neli Vazquez-Rowland. Vazquez-Rowland co-founded A Safe Haven in Chicago, a social enterprise that helps address the root causes of poverty and homelessness through housing, mental health care, and employment training.
“During the pandemic, she and I were having a conversation about how were things going and what’s going on, and she told me that they were having trouble getting toiletries that the women could individually have because they could no longer share. So she was kind of in a quandary and said, you know, let’s figure this out,” Castro said.
Castro’s solution was simple – to get the items to A Safe Haven quickly, she just went out and bought the toiletries herself. Sitting in her living room surrounded by shopping bags full of shampoo and toothpaste, she says inspiration struck.
“I thought, I can’t give a woman a plastic bag filled with these toiletries. Like how insensitive would that be? So I decided to go onto Amazon, and typed in ‘purses under $20’ because I had already spent all my money on toiletries,” Castro said. “And then it hit me, why don’t I write a little note? So I wrote a note of inspiration, put one in each of the purses and then it just dawned on me – it’s filled with so much love from me to whomever is going to receive this. It’s a love purse!”
She brought the idea to Vazquez-Rowland, who says she responded with overwhelming enthusiasm.
“I immediately embraced it and loved it! The women that are here at A Safe Haven are here for so many different reasons, some because of job loss, some due to domestic violence, some coming out of prison, even some women that are military veterans are here,” said Vazquez-Rowland. “The smiles on their faces when they got a purse filled with all these amazing essentials, I think truly lives up to its name — I mean, it’s love, right?”
That’s when Castro realized donating purses filled with not just necessities, but also a bit of encouragement, is a mission that anyone wanting to help women in need could carry out.
“I put it out on social media and that was it, like, the floodgates opened,” she said. “I was getting calls from people saying, ‘oh my God, this is great.’ It really became something that anybody could do so easily, and it wasn’t that costly.”
Soon, the idea took off across the country and even the globe. Volunteers Castro calls Love Purse’s “angel ambassadors” hold purse-stuffing parties and deliver them to social service agencies in their areas. Locally, Love Purse partners with agencies like Metropolitan Family Services and Magdalene House Chicago, a residential recovery program for survivors of human trafficking. Executive director Ida Butler says for women rebuilding their lives after trauma, the purses carry special meaning.
“We provide the home for them, we provide the services they need to function, and this may be something that they have not had for years, perhaps, or ever,” Butler said. “Something that’s personal something that’s theirs, something that’s unique and special to them, because they’re unique and special people.”
One year and 6,000 donated purses later, Castro says the flood of help and encouragement Love Purse continues to receive fills her with the desire to keep the mission going.
“I want to be able to help as many women as we can. Obviously, the need is there,” she said. “But at the same time, there’s never a lack of donations or people that want to help. It just proves to me that there’s so much kindness and so much good out there.”