By Cheryl Conway
Lisa Smith Wagner’s home in the Hackettstown section of Mt. Olive is filling up with handbags for homeless women living on the streets or in shelters.
Her non-profit 501©3 organization, Helping Hearts & Handbags, Inc., recently shipped out 25 gently used purses filled with personal care items to a homeless shelter in Houston, Texas, in an effort to provide some relief following Hurricane Harvey. A box was sent to Star of Hope Family Center in Houston on Thur., Sept. 7, after her board members gathered at her house the day before to help fill the purses with the needed items.
Established in March 2016, Wagner’s mission is for women to help other women. Her target has been to help the women in Morris and Warren counties who are either living on the streets or in shelters. One of her board members had suggested stretching their giving southwest after the disastrous hurricane ripped through Texas.
“I love the idea of women helping women,” says Wagner, founder and president of HH&H, “especially with the purses. “We have so much, we are so blessed with what we have.”
Wagner says, “I had 20 purses I wasn’t using. I feel we can help the women. Women are helping families.”
Registered as a non-profit last year, Wagner says she began collecting personal care items several years back as a hobby while traveling.
“I traveled a lot for my job,” says Wagner, a mother of two adult sons who recently retired from sales and marketing at Sunrise Senior Living. “I used to collect all the toiletries from the hotels.”
Then developed her idea to sort the items, put them in bags and donate to the homeless women. She got her book club involved at first and her effort grew.
“I run a book club, got seven big plastic bags full of them [personal care items] just asking 13 women,” says Wagner, two-time book author. “Women want to help women so much.”
One of the women in her book club, Janet Polizois- a reading specialist at Chester M. Stephens Elementary School In Budd Lake- took those efforts a step further and held a Donation Station Drive at the school in June. The CMS collection gathered 40 purses and toiletries.
To allow those who donate to write off their contributions as a tax write-off, Wagner incorporated and established a board in April 2016 made up of her mom, niece, and three friends.
Most of their collections have taken place at Donation Stations by her family and friends.
“We’ve gone into the city and given out purses,” says Wagner, but the main target is those women living locally.
“I’ve given out 50 so far,” she says, and then 25 more to Houston.
Her goal is to give out another 75 purses by November.
Wagner’s hair salon, Lynn’s Personal Image Salon in Hackettstown held a collection two months ago.
“Anytime I ask anyone, I get purses,” says Wagner.
Her company’s bank, First Hope Bank on Route 46 west in Mt. Olive, and its other three locations in Warren County and two in Essex County, started a HH&H’s Donation Station drive Sept. 12. The six branches plan to continue the drive for three to four weeks.
Patrons are asked to donate gently used large handbags and personal care items on the suggested item list.
Items being collected include travel size soap, lotion, shampoo, conditioner, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, tissue packs, wrapped sanitary pads, wipes and hand sanitizer, fun socks, gloves, bottled water, instant coffee, hot chocolate, tea bags and oatmeal packets.
“We made a top ten list,” says Wagner. “Most homeless don’t have sanitary pads. That is so undignified.”
Inside each purse, HH&H handwrites an inspiration message on a notecard that reads “Love from the women at Helping Hearts & Handbags.”
Accepted are gently used handbags.
“They are all sizes and shapes and makes,” says Wagner. “We try to use the larger the purse the better,” in order to fit all of the personal care items and provide that extra space women living in shelters need for their belongings.
“We can’t use evening bags,” says Wagner, adding that she had to donate the smaller bags to churches.
“Homeless women have a lot of belongings in their paper bag,” says Wagner. “They’re carrying all their stuff. They take their stuff out of the ratty old plastic bag and put it in the purse. It is so much more dignified to me to put it in the purse.”
Her visits with homeless women have been heartfelt.
“They’ll sit down with me and take out all their things; they’re just so happy,” describes Wagner.
Backpacks maybe the way to go in the future, Wagner says.
“This is all brand new, we are tweaking as we go along.”
Wagner hopes to start some fundraising to offset her costs such as a wine and cheese come January.
“I started the business; I paid for everything up front,” she says. “I put in $1,500 to be incorporated to start off with supplies and marketing.”
Besides financial contributions, Wagner is looking for some warehouse space to store all of the donated handbags and personal care items.
Before there were sent out, Wagner says “I have over 150 purses in my basement; so much for the pool table.”
Eventually, her ultimate goal is to start chapters of HH&H everywhere with some of her immediate interests to expand to Charlotte, N.C., Philadelphia, Pa., and northern Virginia.
To donate a gently used purse and personal care items, visit a First Hope Bank or contact Wagner through her website at www.HelpingHeartsandHandbags.com; or call her at (908) 310-1448.