Even though it’s been decades since she escaped an abusive marriage, Julie McCollum, New Haven, still remembers what it was like those first few days after her rush to get to safety.
“I ended up with five black trash bags, a single bed in a single room for me and my two children,” she said. “I had no purse. I didn’t have any shampoo, conditioner, tampons . . . I didn’t have anything feminine.”
They had left so quickly, she said, that they didn’t worry about grabbing personal care items and necessities.
McCollum doesn’t want other women escaping similar situations to experience that, so two and a half years ago she launched what has become the Touch of Hope Purse Project, providing purses filled with various personal care items to girls and women trying to escape abuse and sex trafficking.
“When a woman leaves an abusive situation, often times she has to leave without her purse,” said McCollum. “To a woman, a purse is a must-have. We carry everything with us. In most situations, a woman cannot afford to replace it or the items inside.
“Giving her a purse filled with essentials not only helps to meet an immediate need, but it also gives a glimmer of hope that things will get better. The mission is to give comfort in a time of need.”
All of the purses from Touch of Hope are donated. Some are new, but most are gently used.
The personal care and beauty items are all new and unopened.
The girls and women who are receiving the purses are everywhere — Franklin County, St. Louis, Jefferson City and beyond.
“We go where there is a need,” said McCollum, noting she is happy to give the purses to any organization that serves the girls and women in need.
That includes nonprofits like ALIVE (Alternatives to Living in Violent Environments) here in Franklin County as well as RACS (Rape and Abuse Crisis Service) in Jefferson City, Fresh Beginnings, The Other Mother, St. Vincent’s Homeless Shelter and area law enforcement.
To date, Touch of Hope has given out more than 740 purses. It sent out 225 in December alone.
And it welcomes as many requests as necessary to help those in need.
Inspired by Closet Cleanse
The idea for the purse project came to McCollum one day after she had finished cleaning and organizing her closet. She had a pile of purses that were still in excellent condition, and she wanted to do something good with them.
Once she decided to fill them with personal care items for women escaping domestic violence, she shared the idea with some of friends from a water aerobics class at Four Rivers Area YMCA.
Many of those women went home to their own closets and pulled out 50 purses for McCollum’s project, and word began to spread.
Within a few months McCollum was introduced to Barb Haddox, who also had escaped an abusive relationship and in 2017 had established the Perseverance Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Hermann that is dedicated to helping abused women.
That’s when the purse project went from targeting women escaping domestic violence to helping any abused girls and women, including those forced into sex trafficking.
“It started with the intention of helping women escaping domestic violence, but it has gone far beyond that,” said McCollum.
She credits Haddox with really helping her grow the purse project to reach the hundreds of women that she has already.
“(Barb) has the connections and knowledge about how to connect with people,” said McCollum. “I had given away one or two purses before connecting with her.”
The women brainstormed ideas for an official name of the purse project. They settled on Touch of Hope because it states their goal.
“We are giving the women a touch of hope,” said Haddox, to which McCollum quickly added, “a touch of comfort for a little while.”
Although they haven’t been able to hear directly from the women who have received any of the purses, they have heard back from the people who run the shelters and agencies helping them, and the feedback is uplifting.
“One woman cried when she opened her purse to find a pair of sunglasses,” said McCollum.
And the fact that the shelters and agencies continue to ask for more purses proves the value and the need for the program, McCollum commented.
The Perseverance Foundation
Currently the Perseverance Foundation offers education, support and connections for anyone escaping abuse, but there are plans to do even more, said Haddox, who serves as president. The organization expects to be offering counseling services soon, and a QPR (Question, Persuade and Refer) suicide prevention training is being held March 28 at Hermann Christian Church. See sidebar for details.
“The Perseverance Foundation is about educating the community,” said Haddox, noting that Missouri is ranked No. 13 in tourism-related sex trafficking, and Hermann is a tourism town.
“Traffickers are not normally snatching people off the streets,” Haddox noted. “It can be someone they may have known for a long time, someone who has been grooming them.
“Human trafficking is not just a sex crime. People have been killed for their organs or to become a work slave to deal in the drug industry and many other reasons . . . (although) 79 percent are trafficked for sex.
“The average victim is forced to have sex 20 to 48 times a day,” said Haddox. “They often prey on 12- to 14-year-olds . . . Tourism and hospitality stakeholders are often unaware of the signs and so unknowingly contribute to sex trafficking and the transportation of a human trafficking victim.”
The Perseverance Foundation is planning an event to educate area business owners on the topic. McCollum, who was recently installed as vice president of the Perseverance Foundation, said she would like to have the opportunity to educate area teenagers as well.
Welcome Purse, Item Donations
Touch of Hope has been gaining momentum in the last few months, said McCollum.
The first year, she filled 200 purses that had been donated mainly just from her friends at the Y.
Now that word has spread and the program is doing more outreach, it is really beginning to take off.
Gerald Community Outreach recently organized a group of children to put a selection of the personal care items into small plastic bags so they can be easily inserted in the purses, speeding up the delivery process.
A small room inside the Perseverance Foundation office in Hermann is one of two locations where the purses and personal care items are stored. McCollum calls it “the comfort zone.”
Purses are stacked up on a table, and others are piled in a basket. The various personal care items are sorted into bins.
McCollum takes care to go through the purses and make sure they are clean and something a woman would be proud and happy to carry.
“I’m very picky with my purses,” she said. “They have to be clean, and we put in enough product to last them for a couple of days.”
People who would like to donate purses or personal care items should contact McCollum at 636-388-6659 or email@example.com for details on where they can drop them off or to make arrangements for her to pick them up.
There are collection boxes set up at the libraries in Hermann, New Haven and Owensville.
McCollum noted one purse that was anonymously donated was already filled with a lot of items and products and it included a card offering words of encouragement to the abused woman who will eventually receive it.
There have been a few times that people have donated luxury brand purses, such as Coach and Chanel, and McCollum has asked the donor for permission to sell the purse rather than just fill it so the funds can be used to purchase personal care items that go into the purses.
“We’ve done that when were getting short of product, and I was getting short of money,” said McCollum, who donates the tip money she receives from working as a wine consultant at a local winery to purchase the personal care items.
People have donated single use sizes of shampoo and soap that they pick up from hotels, but Haddox explained that those are not really ideal. They can trigger bad memories for girls and women who have been abused in sex trafficking, since many of those experiences have occurred in hotels.
Cash donations also are welcome. They can be mailed to the Perseverance Foundation at P.O. Box 494, Hermann, MO 65041.
Suggested Donation Items
There are no right and wrong personal care items to donate. Anything you think a woman would appreciate having in her purse is welcome.
Following is a list of suggested items. All should be new and unopened:
Tampons and pads
Combs and brushes
Pens and pencils
Small writing pads of paper
QPR Suicide Prevention Training Offered March 28
A Question, Persuade and Refer Suicide Prevention Training class will be held Saturday, March 28, at Hermann Community Christian Church, 100 E. First St., Hermann.
Two class times will be offered, from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3 p.m.
Seating is limited to 25 people per class. To register, people should email firstname.lastname@example.org with QPR Training in the subject line.
For more information, people should call 573-395-6481 or 636-388-6659.
The instructor will be Peggy Reed-Lohmeyer, MSW, LCSW.
QPR training is designed to help people help others who may be considering suicide. The class teaches three life-saving skills: How to question a person about suicide, how to persuade the person to get help and how to refer the person to the appropriate resources.
QPR is not intended to be a form of counseling or treatment. It is intended to offer hope through positive action.
It is intended to teach those who are in a position to recognize the warning signs, clues and suicidal communications of people in trouble to act vigorously to prevent a possible tragedy.
Much like CPR and the Heimlich Maneuver, the fundamentals of QPR are easily learned, and the application may save a life.
The training is being sponsored by the Perseverance Foundation and Touch of Hope.