‘Have an extra purse? Give it to a homeless woman.’: California teen starts charity to shed light on supporting women experiencing homelessness

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“Purses For A Purpose, Inc. started with my father, Keith Rutman. In April 2019, he showed me a Facebook post stating, ‘Have an extra purse? Don’t sell it, give it to a homeless woman.’ So, a huge shoutout to my dad for initiating this idea and eventual ever-growing organization.

Founder of Purses for a Purpose, Shayna Rutman, in front of donated items.
Courtesy of Shayna Rutman

Soon after, we spent countless hours discussing ideas and strategizing about how to do more than what that Facebook infographic said. My memory is a little hazy for those specific conversations and details, but that was roughly when Purses For A Purpose, Inc. came to light. Purses for a Purpose, Inc. was born with the aspiration of reminding all homeless women of their value, importance, and, of course, purpose in this world.

With this goal in mind, I began to build social media platforms to reach our two target audiences: women with spare purses and avid travelers who collect hotel toiletries and necessities who don’t use them when they return (you know you know some of each). With the help of some creatively talented friends, we created eye-popping infographics to spread the message: we were in need of lightly used, mid-sized purses and travel-sized toiletries, and to our surprise, we received a lot of donations as well as unexpected praise!

As our social media marketing grew, so did the opportunity to expand our distribution network. After countless email initiatives, I partnered up with the Street Boutique, a division of Think Dignity in San Diego, CA, which focused on the homeless crisis. The Street Boutique had an emphasis on holding free ’boutiques’ once a month in which they handed out other free female products and necessities. I was a junior in high school when this partnership began, and I am fortunate to have been able to miss school in order to travel and distribute purses with them around North County San Diego every other month.

I worked at the Street Boutique for roughly six months: it was the best experience, and I got the opportunity to meet and learn first-hand from the homeless women to whom I distributed purses about the ever-growing homeless crisis. Sometime in 2021, I partnered with the Duwara Consciousness Foundation based in San Diego, CA, to deliver full purses to directly distribute them to their clients.

A member of Purses stands, holding bags on either arm.
Courtesy of Shayna Rutman

My community was so supportive. My high school and some small businesses were kind enough to lend their spaces to act as temporary donation locations until there was enough money donated to open a PO Box. Looking back through the filters of photos on the Facebook page, it’s amazing to see how much the organization has grown. In the beginning, I felt so disorganized and didn’t know the proper way to manage the packing and distribution. I quickly found out and delivered over 100 purses in less than a year. I learned throughout the in-person delivery process it tends to be hit-or-miss solely depending on how many women show up, so some days I went home with plenty of extra bags for next time.

This was business as usual until March 2020. Unfortunately, I had to halt deliveries and in-person distribution. At this time, I was a senior in high school and was beginning Zoom school, so obviously, like most teenagers, I turned to TikTok to cure the boredom of being at home 24/7. TikTok is actually another tool I used to advance Purses For A Purpose, Inc. A TikTok I posted around the time of my first ever distribution surpassed 3 million views and gained 1 million likes. So many people wanted to donate and support in any way they could, and all the praise was so overwhelming to me and my phone! TikTok pushed me to make this initiative bigger, so I spent several hours building a website, creating graphics, updating social media platforms, and creating a GoFundMe, all while obtaining supplies to build the purses.

By the time summer 2020 came around, I was preparing to fly out to Washington D.C. for college and leave Purses For A Purpose, Inc. alone until I returned for break, but little did I know I was about to be spending the next six months at home doing Zoom university like the rest of my peers. I had a lot of free time that summer and was checking messages I received from other girls my age interested in starting their own branches.

Originally when Purses For A Purpose began, I didn’t see it potentially growing into a national organization like March For Our Lives or anything like that. I was solely focused on raising awareness about the ever-growing homeless crisis. However, once these girls reached out to me, I helped them step-by-step to grow this initiative in their city. As of July 2021, Purses For A Purpose includes the cities of San Diego, Washington D.C., New Haven, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. If anyone reading is interested in starting their own branch, please check out the website!

New chapter of Purses for a Purpose in PA
Courtesy of Shayna Rutman

We didn’t know that in order to receive corporate donations we had to obtain IRS tax-exempt 501(c)3 status, so we got to work. We met with a representative, and after all the paperwork and our board meeting, we can now seek excess supplies from large corporate organizations to benefit our chapters.

I am so fortunate to be living and attending college in Washington D.C. This past semester, when I went to school, I got the opportunity to volunteer with Thrive D.C., a homeless outreach organization, in-person, and I talked with them about assistance with starting a Purses For A Purpose, Inc. D.C. Chapter. As of July 2021, I will be working with my fellow board member and American University student Kate Bishop on the D.C. Chapter! Some advice I want to share with readers is to go for it! Find something you are passionate about, and you too can make someone’s day and potentially change the world.

Four members of Purses for a Purpose assembling supplies.
Courtesy of Shayna Rutman

I am so grateful to call myself CEO of Purses For A Purpose, Inc. This wouldn’t be possible without the support of everyone who has donated their time, money, and supplies to help us raise the conversation about the ever-growing homeless crisis. I would especially like to thank my parents Keith and Sherry Rutman, Sofia Pollack, Kate Bishop, Iqra Irfan, Issy Earp, Sircia Levitt, Amanda Dowgiewicz, Alivia Vinezio, Emily Bahr, Dalia and Merlynn from Think Dignity, Davinder Singh from the Duwara Consciousness Foundation, and Rose Osburn from Thrive D.C. for their support and help with growing Purses For A Purpose into what it is today.”

Rutman setting up a new Purses station
Courtesy of Shayna Rutman

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Shayna Rutman. You can follow her journey on Instagram and Facebook. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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