Some may call it a coincidence, and some may call it destiny, but either way I experienced a profoundly life- changing moment 8 years ago when I had the honour of meeting an incredible woman whose personal story would forever change my perspective on life, my belongings, and women who are experiencing life challenges.
I met Karen while I was an inpatient at the Foothills Hospital, we were roommates. Karen was dealing with the effects of Stage 4 mouth cancer. Doctors had previously removed most of her teeth, as well as her tongue, and she was currently recovering after a grueling but successful 15 hour surgery to successfully create a new tongue from skin from her forearm and muscle from her thigh: truly a medical feat.
My tenure at the hospital was short-lived and I eventually went home: back to my supporting and loving family and back to my great job. My new friend didn’t have the same privilege, she could not go home, because her “home” was in the Calgary Drop in Centre. Multiple rounds of chemo and radiation had compromised her immune system. Only able to maintain a liquid diet, Karen was down to a meagre 80 pounds.
I had grown fond of Karen, her strength her tenacity, and her kind heart, and I wanted to help her any way that I could. After sharing Karen’s story, with my cousin Betty, we were compelled to recruit a group of relatives and friends, and the design team at Decca Design. We organized a “Coming Home Party” for Karen to personalize her unit in an affordable housing project funded by the Calgary Drop In Centre. Generous donations and gifts fully furnished and decorated her apartment. We made her house a home!
But something was still missing. Something felt unfinished. We had played a small role in helping one woman who was in a precarious position with nowhere else to turn, but what about other women who are in transition? We were keen to establish a clear vision and continue to work with women facing challenging situations.
Early on Karen had taught me about the “stigma of the backpack”. Most of us go freely in to stores and restaurants without ever being asked if our large purses can be checked or inspected. This is not the case for women who often carry all of their belongings in a backpack. Backpacks are frequently searched, and then tagged. It is humiliating and just one more way that these women are stigmatized.
However, as I mentioned, a woman’s purse is not inspected. So, Betty and I came up with the idea of collecting new or gently used purses, filling them with a few life essentials and lots of “HOPE”.Then distributing them through reputable agencies that serve women. We are proud to partner with these agencies and social workers who work so hard to give women the opportunity to move ahead.
Eight years later, I am happy to say that Karen is very much alive, and still fighting her battle against cancer. Her sweet smile and sense of humor remain intact. Her strength through this journey has been an inspiration to all of us who know her.
Meeting Karen may have been a fortuitous coincidence, but our friendship has allowed me the privilege of a new perspective, as well as the motivation and opportunity to work towards making a difference in the lives of other women. This isn’t a new story, but it is one that Betty and I feel passionate about. Our mission has united friends, family, Decca Design’s amazing reps and staff, our painting group, and so many other people who we haven’t personally met to provide purses to women over these past eight years. Giving Hope One Purse at a Time!