The power of the purse

When Val Balaski heard about an initiative to send purses to women in First Nations communities she knew just how much the gesture would mean.

Years ago when she lived in Nova Scotia Balaski spent the week of Christmas in a women’s shelter with her kids. When she arrived she was given a bag of items including a toothbrush and toothpaste hairbrush shampoo and soap.

“I remember it made me cry to think somebody who didn’t know me or didn’t know these other people in there but had the compassion to put together these bags and then when the women come in they’re given these bags so that they have some toiletries” she said.

The experience taught her how important small acts of kindness can be – and how the gift of a purse with useful items can brighten someone’s day or even change someone’s perspective.

The purse drive which is organized each year by Charleen Gordon and Marleen Murphy sisters from the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory has been taken up locally by Christine McRae in the Bancroft area and her mother Maureen Luckasavitch. McRae reached out to her network of friends throughout the region including Haliburton Peterborough Maynooth and even Aurora.

Last year McRae gathered 68 purses. This year it was 131. Those purses are added to the ones brought in at Tyendinaga and it’s estimated more than 400 will be donated to women in communities that have experienced hardship in recent years including some in the midst of suicide epidemics.

Karen Warner of Harcourt also saw McRae’s callout for purses and decided to participate.

“I know Christine … I look to really support initiatives for women and in particular Indigenous women. Always interested in what she’s got going on. She does so much in the community” she said.

Perhaps because Warner doesn’t usually carry a purse herself she had a couple in the house that hadn’t been used much and decided to donate them.

The purse drive asks people to donate new or gently used purses and to either fill them with useful items such as toiletries tea flashlights stationery supplies or donate money to have them filled by a volunteer. The convenience of the process was part of what made the initiative successful Warner said.

“I wasn’t able to run around and collect purses or stuff purses [due to personal time constraints] but I was able to drop off my own purse and then make a donation where others would stuff the purse and make it personal” she said.

Last year purses collected were sent to northern Ontario and Saskatchewan but this year McRae said there is more of a focus on First Nations communities in southeastern Ontario while also sending some on to Saskatchewan again.

“Basically reserves that you know need a little extra support and need people to know they care about them even though we’ve never met them” she said.

For her part Balaski coordinated purses from her contacts in the Haliburton area storing them in her bedroom where they took up plenty of floor space. She didn’t count them but thinks there were likely 20 to 25. Then she drove them to Maynooth where she met McRae for the handoff.

“I was just so proud of the women [who donated]. That’s why I say women helping women. They banded together and they came forward. The donation was $50 [worth of items] or something like that and some of these women brought the purses and I know there was more than $50 worth of products in those purses. … It was humbling it just made my heart swell.”

McRae said she’s thankful for those who supported the purse drive again this year.

“I think the most important thing is thanking everyone who took the time to put a purse together to donate or even to spread the word. I know a few people worked hard to reach out to their friends and collect purses and sort through them. Anyone who took part in any way” she said.