Who am I? What do I do? Let me tell you my story! It all started late at night on an Easter Monday in 1987….ok, ok I won’t go that far back.
I started volunteering at a very young age through the Girl Guides of Canada, I volunteered at the Food Bank and at public events – this type of philanthropy was instilled in me as young as 5 years old. By the time I was 14 I was finding volunteer opportunities on my own. It was around this age that I knew I was destined for non-profit work as a career. I loved giving back and I loved making a difference in the community around me. Some have said my heart is bigger than my brain.
Over the course of my schooling, I kept volunteering and even found a summer internship in a not-for-profit company. It was in 2011 that I finally found a paying job in a non-profit company that allowed me to work in sales and marketing, bettering the lives of construction workers across Ontario. We provided health benefits and advocated for safety, benefits, and well-being of those workers. While it felt amazing, it was short lived as the company, based out of Toronto, closed their Ottawa office.
I bounced back 4 months later and found a job as an Administrative Assistant at the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa. I was unsure how to feel about this. It was a place that I grew up in, they do a lot of outreach work for those most vulnerable, but as an Admin I worried my passion would not be fulfilled. I am thrilled to tell you about just how wrong I was! While I did get to do some work with the outreach ministries and learn about all the different work the Diocese did, my real passion emerged in 2015 when I personally launched the Women Helping Women Purse Project (see my blog about that here!). The Diocese not only allowed me to use the office as purse storage, but my connections that I made there and the work I had witnessed inspired my entire initiative. Donating over 3000 purses (filled with feminine hygiene products) in our first run, I created new and bigger partnerships and changed the lives of countless women. Not only did this inspire my passion and fill my heart, it finally let me show off my true talents and shortly after I landed a promotion as Conference & Events Coordinator for the Diocese – I also now manage all of their social media too!
So, who am I? I’m the girl with a heart that’s bigger than my brain, and a passion for bettering the lives of those around me. Who are you? Tell me what inspires you and what makes you who you are in the comments below!
You jump on Facebook and mindlessly scroll down; you see a fundraiser or charity trying to do good – do you take action or scroll right by? What makes you stop, think twice, and take action? Is it the catchy graphic? The well thought out headline? Or maybe it was because it was posted by someone you admire?
Why bother helping at all? The short answer? Because it makes you feel good. From my personal experience, people want to help, it’s in our nature, but we want to be able to do it easily and without too much effort. We want to do our part and feel good doing it.
Today I will bring you through my journey of The Women Helping Women Purse Project and how social media took a good idea, a way of helping those in need, and brought it to a level I never could have imagined.
Let me take you back to October 2015. I was sitting in my new apartment scrolling through Facebook, probably not even reading the status updates as I scrolled on, until this picture and headline stopped me dead in my tracks, What It’s Like to Get Your Period When You’re Homeless (Moore, 2015, p. 1), and the picture? A young girl in a hoodie sitting on concrete steps, slightly keeled over, from what I can only assume was pain from period cramps. I clicked on the link and begin to read about how difficult it is for homeless women in the United States to access sanitary products. I was shook.
Not long after reading this article, I shut everything down and went to bed, but my brain wouldn’t shut down. I could not stop thinking about these women, and women in our very own communities who were likely facing the same problem. I work for the church, and we oversee a few shelters and day programs, I know women in our communities weren’t likely facing these challenges, they were facing these challenges.
The next morning came, and off I went to work, still thinking about this article. The next time I logged onto Facebook, like a message from a Higher Power, someone had posted the idea of filling purses with things for homeless women and keeping the purse in your car to hand out next time you crossed paths with one (Nnamdi, 2015) – not the first time I had seen this idea, but certainly something I needed to see in this exact moment.
So launched The Women Helping Women Purse Project: The idea sparked and I quickly got busy making a poster, asking people to fill purses with feminine hygiene products and get them to me to bring to the local women’s shelters in Ottawa. I emailed the poster out to women in my life, and posted it on my personal Facebook page, with a goal of donating 50 purses by Christmas.
The idea was great! I made a purse, my mom made a purse, my close friends made purses, and within a week and a half I already had 10 purses! I thought this was wonderful, for sure I was going to make my goal of 50 purses by Christmas.
As someone who believes in philanthropy, I was also volunteering with a youth program with the Ottawa Police. I guess I should have known that word of my project would quickly spread. But I never expected it to spread like the wildfire it did. One day, I got 25 purses from one department! But even better than that, I found a partner who believed in this cause just as much as I did.
My new partner Sylvie and I met, discussed the goal of the project, made a public Facebook page, and almost overnight the goal of 50 purses, became 500. We opened drop off points around the city, our Facebook page likes, and shares were growing at rapid speeds. Our Facebook posts were even being shared by The Ottawa Police Facebook page, and the Ottawa Police Chef was tweeting about us on Twitter. Our project was being shared and re-shared faster than we could follow. We started getting picked up by the local media – articles were being written about us, and those were being shared too. With the increased presence on social media, we continued to increase our goal, to 1000, to 1500, to 2000, we thought for a minute, did we get in over our heads? Finally, we stopped putting a number to it, and just focused on doing good and raising awareness. Access to feminine hygiene products was now on people’s radars – let’s make the most of this opportunity!
Over the course of about two months, we collected and sorted purses, spoke out about the issue of access to feminine hygiene products, contacted shelters, drove countless kilometres picking up purses, and updated our ever-growing Facebook page daily. We were also being contacted by people across North America about how they could start this project in their towns. Still today, our Facebook page has a following of over 900 followers. (Women Helping Women Purse Project, 2020).
The Piles of Purses: On December 17, we loaded up a donated van and police cruisers with purses and started making our rounds to countless shelters around Ottawa. On that day, we closed out the Purse Project for 2015, donating well over 3000 purses to women in need, and additional boxes of supplies to shelters around Ottawa. (Reaney/Women Helping Women Purse Project, 2015).
The Following Years: While emotionally the 2015 Purse Project feels like it was our biggest success, we cannot forget our future campaigns either. Each June we held a much smaller version of the campaign focusing on just the products. In the Falls of 2017 and 2018 we held additional large campaigns; they were all equally successful. The rest of year, when these campaigns were not happening, we continued to focus on raising awareness, and asking people to take donations directly to shelters as feminine hygiene products are needed year-round. In 2019 Sylvie had retired from the Ottawa Police Service, and I had taken on new opportunities; we decided it was time to pass the torch and leave the Purse Project to the Ottawa Community. While each campaign was very successful and the rush of running the campaigns were just as euphoric, nothing will compare to the Fall of 2015 when we launched it all.
Why were we successful? Some might say it is because we had a great cause, positive personalities, and we knew a large network of people. While all those reasons are certainly true, I think we can credit a lot of the success to our access to social media, and how easy we made it to donate. Though we had existing connections to many of these people, we never would have been able to bring them all together without the use of social media platforms.
Do you know any women who do not have a closet full of unused purses, and a drawer overflowing with extra feminine products? I sure don’t! We used social media to put the call out:
✅ Fill up a Purse
✅ Drop it off
✅ Feel Good!
We also asked people share our status updates or pictures of themselves filling a purse. What do people love doing on Facebook? Sharing a status of themselves doing good, which all leads back to the success of our project! Yes, you have to leave your house, but you do not need to drive downtown, go to a shelter, schedule a drop off, or financially commit at all (most of these products can already be found in your own home).
We were not a registered charity, we had no paid staff, we had no formal social media training, and we used our vacation days, evenings, and weekends to manage our cause. We were two women, with a great idea, and access to a free platform that made it possible to reach out to an entire community that supported this cause. We used every networking chance and opportunity we were offered, and one purse at a time, we gave these women not only life necessities, but hope. (Danson/Women Helping Women Purse Project, 2018).
Do you think we would have reached our goals and created so much awareness without the help of social media? What causes do you support and did their social media encourage you to give or help? Tell us about your philanthropic experiences in the comments below!