For Riverside resident Maria Castro, the spirit of giving and offering a helping hand to those facing adversity aren’t just things to be emphasized once a year during the Christmas season. For her, compassion toward others is the ethos which drives her all year long — both in her day job and newfound, round-the-clock project.
Since 2005, Castro has worked as a community investment manager with Comcast, working alongside Chicago area nonprofits to build community partnerships, bridge the digital divide in low-income neighborhoods by providing internet access, identify recipients for technology grants and oversee a slew of community service projects.
Both through her job and other philanthropic efforts, Castro has seen firsthand the positive difference that can be made when people join forces for a greater good and to uplift the lives of others in need.
Earlier this year, a new lightbulb went off in her head, shining a light on a new venture — creating personalized handbags designed to equip and uplift women and girls experiencing homelessness, domestic abuse and other hardships.
She calls the initiative Love Purse, a nonprofit which aims to make women across the Chicagoland area feel loved, valued and respected, especially in a time when most of them may have lost everything due to violence, poverty and other traumas.
Filled with personal hygiene items including toothbrushes and toothpaste, deodorant, lip balm, combs, feminine hygiene products, shampoo and conditioner, lotion, socks and snacks, each Love Purse takes an otherwise ordinary handbag and turns them into a sort of portable safe haven.
Each bag also contains personal, handwritten notes of inspiration to let each recipient know that despite the circumstances, she matters and is respected as a woman.
The concept behind Love Purse first came to Castro back in March following a phone conversation with a friend about, of all things, a Facebook post.
For the past five years during March, Castro has used her Facebook page as a platform to highlight inspirational women and causes for Women’s History Month.
This year, as she was compiling new people to highlight, she called a friend who heads up A Safe Haven, a Chicago homeless and domestic violence shelter. Castro learned that because of the pandemic, the shelter has seen triple-digit increases in the number of women seeking assistance. The shelter was running low on supplies, and her friend was unsure about what to do.
Castro put out a message to her network of friends and community partners to see if she could solicit toiletries for the shelter. Within hours, Castro’s connections sent her dozens of items to take to the shelter.
While receiving the abundance of goods made Castro happy, something about the process just didn’t feel quite right.
“As I came up with the idea of collecting all these toiletries, I told my husband, ‘I just don’t feel right giving a woman who already feels down and out and really down on her luck a plastic bag saying, ‘Here you go, here’s your toiletries,’” she explained. “I just felt like that was so insensitive.”
Thinking how vital a handbag is for most women to hold all things essential, Castro thought, why not give these women their new set of essentials in a new purse?
Ordering $20 handbags on Amazon, Castro began taking the donated toiletries and filling the bags up for distribution. But still, Castro thought, something more could be done.
“Women don’t just carry their purses for fashion. They contain their most private and personal belongings,” she said. “It’s an essential part of their lives. I found extra note cards at home and decided, ‘Why not write them little notes of inspiration?’”
With messages like, “You matter,” “We love you,” and “This too shall pass,” Castro placed a handwritten note into each purse before taking them to the shelter.
“As I sat there and looked at these purses, I just felt this overwhelming feeling that whoever opened them was going to know that somebody did this out of love — that they were getting these purses because somebody loved them enough and cared about them enough to say, ‘Here you go,’” Castro said. “The next morning, it came to me — it’s a love purse.”
From that first batch of donations, Castro decided to have one T-shirt printed with the saying “#LovePurse.” She put on the shirt, posed with the bags in her arms and challenged her friends online to donate a love purse in their honor.
Almost immediately, donations began flooding in, and Castro was busy making and collecting hundreds of more bags and toiletries to donate to A Safe Haven. Over the next few months, more friends began reaching out with suggestions for new shelters and organizations throughout Cook and DuPage counties also in need of donations.
Since then, organizations receiving donations have included Berwyn’s Break the Silence, providing resources to domestic violence victims; Mutual Ground, a domestic abuse treatment center in Aurora; DuPage Pads, a social services organization based in Wheaton; Community Crisis Center, an Elgin-based nonprofit providing safety for those impacted by financial crisis and domestic violence; Wheaton’s Family Shelter Service, helping those facing domestic violence; and Family Rescue, a Chicago organization which provides support services and programs to victims of domestic violence.
With volunteers, or “angel ambassadors”, across the city and suburbs, Castro says she has been able to help make Love Purse a true movement. And, from media coverage on local TV and social media, people and organizations from not just the area, but across the country — and even Mexico and Canada — have been donating purses, toiletries and money to Love Purse and starting their own local chapters.
Along with individual ambassadors, various small businesses and municipalities have helped get in on the action as well, including Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, Cook County Circuit Clerk Iris Martinez, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Berwyn’s First Lady, Gail Lovero.
Since its inception, Castro says Love Purse has been able to provide partnering organizations with upwards of 2,500 purses.
Castro says along with organizations receiving purses, supplies and monetary donations as they come in, she also receives donations and packages at home. Because space is limited there for inventory, Castro packages purses as soon as she receives them and delivers them on a frequent schedule.
“It’s certainly been a very humbling experience to know that one person can start such a movement,” she said. “Yet, it’s not one person because I cannot take the credit for everything that has been given to me by the village of people who have stepped up and helped. This certainly is not a Maria Castro thing; I am blessed a million times over that so many people — even men — have jumped in and asked, ‘What can I do? How can I support women’s issues?’”
The best part about creating Love Purse, Castro said, is the positivity it brings to the lives of the recipients.
“I feel like the woman is the conduit to everything that happens in a household, and when she loses that household or her identity, that could be detrimental to her family,” she said. “Their stories are horrific, but the feeling they get when they get the purse — you can’t even describe it. They are so grateful and so happy to have this purse filled with everything they need when they enter the shelter.”
Individuals interested in reaching out to Castro about donations or other outreach opportunities can contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website, lovepurse.org.