CHICAGO — “Putting love on the shoulders of women in crisis.” That’s the mantra behind the nonprofit Love Purse. The intention is to provide them with a source of empowerment through a handbag.

Maria Castro started Love Purse during the pandemic after she received a phone call from the founder of a Safe Haven Shelter. The shelter needed toiletries for the women that stayed there.

“As I bought everything and brought it home I couldn’t believe myself how I was going to be able to give a plastic bag to a woman who already felt beaten down and really down and out,” she said. “So I thought, ‘Maybe there’s a better way to do this.’ I thought about it and went on to Amazon and typed in purses under $20. And all of these great purses started coming up.”

She packed the purses with feminine products, deodorant, hand sanitizer and soap. But that wasn’t enough. Castro wanted to add a touch of encouragement.

“But as I stuffed them I thought to myself, ‘God I love the feeling of being able to help this woman  – whoever she’s going to be – who opens up this purse. Maybe I’ll write a little note of inspiration to put it in there and make her feel like this is really just for her.’”

And she hasn’t stopped since.

Castro has distributed purses across the state, country and even the world.

“There has not been a lack of participation or donation,” she said. “Unfortunately the need is so great.”

Castro said Love Purse’s great success has been possible through the help of generous community members who hold purse-stuffing parties and then deliver them to an agency they want to help.

A recent collection at the 11th District CAPS office went to the shelter called Dream Catcher Foundation in Chicago.

“I went and met with the CPD folks and they were so excited because they have their domestic violence unit and they work very closely with the shelters,” Castro said.

It has not only made a difference to the recipients, but it has also brought positive energy among those who help pack a handbag.

All purse colors, sizes and styles are accepted. Castro’s only condition is they have to be unused.

“Everything has to be new because she is starting new and I want her to feel that,” she said. “I don’t want anybody to ever think, ‘Well she should feel grateful that she’s getting this used purse I don’t want anymore.’ That’s not the case. It has to be brand new.”

The gift of a new purse has helped close to 7,000 women. Castro said most of them have gone to women of color.

“Probably a good 40%, maybe more, are Latinas which is really sad because a lot of it is the cultural differences,” she said. “They don’t want to call the police on their abuser if they’re an immigrant to this country and they’re not documented. They’re afraid of getting in trouble. So they stay. They stay longer than they should.”

From sparkly to colorful Love Purses are more than a fashion statement for Castro. They’re filled with the tools many women need to start a new chapter in their life.

“It brings them hope and it makes them feel like it’s going to be okay,” she said. “Like they have something that belongs to them and it’s not going to be taken away. They don’t have to share it or anything.”

In the spirit of helping women, Castro wants the momentum to continue until she reaches her goal of helping 100,000 women.

And when that’s met, she wants the number to double so more feel valued.

People interested in donating or hosting a purse-stuffing party can contact Castro on her website.

“I could never imagine, but I feel like when somebody gets this purse they have to feel that love,” she said. “I know that they do when they open it up and they see everything in there and they read the note. It’s like magic.”