When domestic violence survivors came to Howard Area Community Center’s evening counseling group in Rogers Park last week, they were met with a joyful surprise– 80 colorful purses waiting for a home on their shoulder.

One participant in the program, who is remaining anonymous due to safety concerns, said “It makes me feel happy that someone I don’t even know took the time to do this and has such a kind heart to give to me something that I can use everyday that I couldn’t afford on my own.”

The donors are the Junior League of Evanston-North Shore, a women-led volunteer driven group. This thoughtful donation is a result of their “Done in a Day” project, which helps “women and children in the community in either just one day or by addressing a short term need”, per their website.

This particular program is called “Purses with a Purpose”. The purses were donated by individual women and churches throughout the North Shore, like Christ Church in Winnetka. 

“As an organization of women, our mission is to improve the lives of women and families,” said Alisha Liu, who directed “Purses with a Purpose” for the Junior League.

She said that volunteers were interested in a donation that was both attractive and useful. The purses were stocked with essential toiletries like deodorant, soap, menstrual products, toothbrushes, and toothpaste.

Toiletries are often expensive and many domestic violence survivors have restricted financial agency and struggle with stable housing. Lack of access to toiletries can lead to serious illness, and make it infinitely harder to leave abusive relationships and gain independence. For instance, imagine trying to ace a job interview without having the ability to brush your teeth and take a shower.

These are “things that we take for granted, basic cleanliness,” Liu said.

As a women’s group, the Junior League took particular care to include menstrual products when shopping for contents.

“I had a cart full of food, my two-year-old screaming, and on top of that a box full of pads. Probably about 1,000,” she laughed.

“Receiving this kind of treat makes me emotional as the items inside the purse are things I really need,” said a domestic violence survivor in Howard Area Community Center’s programs.

This is the second year that the Junior League has gifted Howard Area Community Center with purses for the domestic violence program.

“I can look back to last year when I received a purse and see how far I have come and I feel blessed to be able to receive this gift again,” one participant said. Many domestic violence counseling participants said that the donated purses were a self-esteem boost.

Liu said that the Junior League chose Howard Area Community Center because they have a breadth of services that address the necessities of low-income women and families in Rogers Park. HACC serves nearly 8,000 people through a food pantry, counseling, adult and children’s education programs, job readiness, and more.

“People kind of turn a blind eye to domestic violence and it’s in our backyard. There’s so much need right here at home,” she said.

You can find more information about the Junior League of Evanston-North Shore at https://www.jle-ns.org/.

Written and photographed by Rachel Hoffman