Launee Wolverton hands out free handbags to women in need. She fills them with items women want and need most, as well as the message they are not alone in their struggles. (Photo by Gaye Bunderson)
By Gaye Bunderson
A woman’s purse may sometimes seem to others that it’s full of ‘worthless items’ like eyeliner and lipstick tubes, but Launee Wolverton knows there’s more to a purse than a collection of meaningless girl stuff. “To me,” said Wolverton, “the importance of a purse to a woman is mind-blowing. It is deeply personal.”
Wolverton started and runs a non-profit called Purses with a Purpose. Make no mistake, the purses may be filled with hairbrushes, bobby pins, cotton swabs, and Q-tips, but each handbag holds a special message for the woman carrying it: You are not alone.
Purses with a Purpose launched a year prior to Covid inside Wolverton’s Boise home, where she lives with her husband and three grandchildren. Nothing slowed down during the pandemic outbreak in 2020 – Wolverton and her family were as busy as ever with the purse project during lockdowns, variant surges, and whatever else presented itself; and the purse project did not diminish in size but grew.
“Last year, we bumped up to 300 purses a month,” Wolverton said.
Wolverton started the purse project after she felt a strong leading from the Lord. She said she would frequently ask herself, “What’s my purpose?” She stopped asking one morning when she woke up and thought, “Purses! That’s my purpose.”
That was the pivotal moment for her present ministry. “I literally woke up with the belief that this was something I should do.” God wanted her to collect purses for women in need and fill them with essential items.
Wolverton admitted, “I don’t even carry a purse!” But the seeming contradiction of launching a purse project when she isn’t a carrier of handbags herself fits into her life like useful things fit well into the perfect purse.
“I grew up in Parma in a family of eight kids,” Wolverton explained. Brought up by a mother who waitressed for a living and grandparents who lived close by, as the oldest girl, Wolverton helped raise her siblings and did things necessary to run a household full of kids with a working mom. She was not raised in a Christian home, but when she was in sixth grade, her neighbors invited her to go to church with them in Nyssa. She went – and she never stopped going. “I searched out churches to attend everywhere I went,” she said.
She taught Bible studies when she was young but admits she hadn’t read the Bible completely because, “I don’t read – I can’t read long stories.” She was capable of reading the shorter stories of the Bible and seemed to have a knack for teaching. She ultimately became a member of the Bible Study Fellowship.
Something that served her well in life were the examples set by her mother and grandmother. She learned strength from them, she said. Though her mother was often away at work, her grandparents lived just “two fields down,” Wolverton said, demonstrating how distance is sometimes measured in farm country. “My grandma was a huge influence on me. She was a strong, beautiful woman.”
Wolverton’s mother died in a car accident at the age of 48, but her example as a mom set her daughter on her own course for parenting. At this point in her life, Wolverton is a full-time mother of grown children and a grandmother of five; a full-time non-profit director; and a full-time realtor.
The purses Wolverton donates are given to her by people in the community; however, the purses don’t go out empty to women who need them. They are filled with things that women want and need most. Wolverton and her husband began by using their own money to fill the purses with products, but now businesses, organizations, and individuals are donating as well.
Also, Wolverton originally started out by walking up to homeless women on the street and asking if they’d like a handbag filled with useful items. Later, she was advised by others that there were better ways to encounter women in need than to walk up to them alone on the streets. She then started going to women’s shelters, halfway houses, and other places where she’d meet with women in the presence of others. Now, she partners with roughly 14 organizations to help get the purses where they’re needed most. She used to spend at last two days distributing purses to organizations using her own vehicle; but now, the organizations come to her.
She also stopped using her own home to store the items that went into the purses – from hygiene articles to beauty products – and to fill the purses for distribution. She rented a small space where she, her husband, and her grandkids could store purses and goods, fill the purses, and have them ready for pick up and distribution. “We stuff the purses the first week of every month,” Wolverton said.
In early July, she found out the space she had been renting had mold, and she was forced to find another. Tim Flaherty of Astegos, an outreach to the homeless, has a 14,000-square-foot warehouse in Garden City and offered to let Wolverton rent an area there. “It’s perfect,” Wolverton said. “The warehouse is huge. We have eight shelving units for products, and it’s a good space for us. I’m so thankful.”
Flaherty is charging only $300/month – the same amount as Purses with a Purpose’s original unit – so despite having to cancel July’s purse distribution, everything was quickly back on track.
Wolverton’s grandchildren pitch in on the purse project each month because their grandmother taught them the value of work and the importance of helping others. “I brought [my] kids up in church; I brought the grandkids up in church. I taught them to pray and told them, ‘Without God, you have nothing’,” she said. “They’re amazing children; they’re really involved, good kids.”
She’s taken ‘the grands’ to places like The Interfaith Sanctuary and told them, “We need to pray for these people, and you need to make sure you do what is right in your lives.”
She is a disciplinarian to her grandchildren as her mother and grandmother were disciplinarians to her; and she knows that without love, discipline alone can be ineffective. “I discipline them, but I love them. I hug them, and I pray with them at night.”
She gets all five grandkids on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday during the summer and has all five of them again every other weekend during the school year.
Along with the assistance and donations she gets from local groups, Amazon donates boxes of stuff it cannot use to Purses with a Purpose three times a year. Wolverton was contacted by the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Nampa, and said, “Out of all the non-profits, they found me.” But then, she doesn’t believe in mere coincidence.
The need for purses and products continues to grow, and organizations are now contacting Wolverton to see if she can help out. She was approached by Tidwell Social Work Services in Boise, which offers trauma-informed mental health services to refugees and immigrants. “They asked for 50 bags for their girls to be able to go to church camp,” Wolverton said.
A surprising segment now in need of help are homeless girls. “During the past school year, we were donating purses for homeless teens to Meridian and Caldwell schools; and this school year, we’re helping Garfield Elementary and Borah High.”
Wolverton needs more people to sign up to pitch in. “I need volunteers to help with social media; I need volunteers to reach out to corporations,” she said. “I need help because I can’t do it all anymore.”
In each purse given to a woman in need, no matter what her circumstance, a small card is inserted. It reads in part: “This purse has been filled with love by a team of people who love and believe in you.”
Besides all that great girl stuff that goes into every purse, there’s some wonderful God stuff too. And it’s all because Launee Wolverton found her purpose.