Patricia Brusha lost her 28-year-old daughter, Courtney Michaels, to alcoholism in June 2019, when she died of stage 4 cirrhosis of the liver. When her funeral came around, in lieu of flowers, she asked guests to bring purses, which would be donated to people coming out of rehab.
This idea was inspired by Michaels’ personal experience with rehab, as she saw that rehab graduates were only given a plastic bag to carry their things into the world.
“I feel like I’m coming out of prison rather than doing something good for myself,” Michaels would say to her mother.
When Michaels thought she overcame her alcoholism, she decided to give back to the rehab community by collecting and donating purses so that they can make a good first impression on the outside.
Michaels and Brusha had started the process of collecting and donating purses until Michaels ultimately lost her battle with alcoholism, Brusha said.
But when funeral attendees donated 400 purses, Brusha realized she could still make her late daughter’s vision a reality. Brusha came out of retirement and created a nonprofit 501(c)(3) called Purse Impressions, starting the operation in her home and later establishing a charity boutique in Cave Creek’s Mariachi Plaza in October.
In a year and a half, Purse Impressions has donated over 1,400 bags to rehab graduates, Brusha said. Purse Impression accepts donations in the form of new or gently used purses, as well as jewelry, accessories and cash.
Rehab centers with the Purse Impressions program set up a “little store” so “when somebody graduates after their 28- or 30-day program, they actually go in and pick a purse that speaks to them,” Brusha said. She added that each person hears the story of Michaels when they choose their purse.
Men who graduate rehab are not left out, Brusha said, adding that Purse Impression donates backpacks as well as “murses,” or male purses.
Each donated bag is filled with hygiene kits, sanitary products, and a handwritten note from Brusha.
When Brusha’s home was filled to the brim with donated purses, she said she realized she needed more space and decided to open the charity boutique.
Opening the boutique has helped to provide the charity with sustainable funding and donations, Brusha said. Skechers donated socks and her dentist donated toothbrushes, she said, adding that she hopes to get corporate sponsors in the future to help supply the hygiene kits.
The charity boutique is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
By selling some of the high-end donated purses in the boutique, she raises money to purchase supplies for the hygiene and sanitary kits. Brusha makes an effort to keep prices low, she said, adding that 100% of the proceeds go to Purse Impressions.
While Brusha was nervous about opening a shop in the midst of a pandemic, “The boutique has been working out really well, better than expected actually,” Brusha said.
“I think in this time of COVID, people want to do something where they feel like they’re doing something good,” she said, adding that the charity boutique provides that.
“One of the bonuses is I didn’t realize how happy people would be with their purses,” she said. When Brusha sells a purse, she often knows the person who donated it and has the chance to tell the customer a little bit about who it belonged to previously. “It’s like the sisterhood of the traveling purses.”
Tables with wallets and small purses sit outside the boutique, and as customers enter, their eyes are met with brightly colored walls and displays of purses, jewelry and scarves.
In the next room, where customers go to check out, there are photos hanging on the wall showing rehab graduates with their new purses. A framed portrait of Michaels sits upon the checkout desk.
“I say to people, ‘This started in memory of my daughter, Courtney, but it’s not a sad place—let’s talk purses.’ But I get that out that I’ve lost my daughter, because you just carry that with you. Always.”
Brusha said she was afraid that the boutique’s backstory would make people feel sad, but she’s found that the opposite holds true.
The boutique has become a “safe space” for Brusha to talk about her grief and for customers to talk about their stories as well, she said.
“What I have found is that everybody seems to be able to relate to either knowing somebody with an addiction problem or having lost somebody,” Brusha said.
“One thing I’ve learned is that addiction doesn’t discriminate,” Brusha said. No matter what race you are, what income you hold or what family you come from, it can happen to anyone, she said.
Brusha just recently achieved two years of sobriety, she said.
When Michaels was diagnosed with stage 4 cirrhosis of the liver, Brusha quit drinking, too, she said. Brusha explained that she thought it was “hypocritical” to drink when the doctors told Michaels she could never drink again.
“She was my best friend,” Brusha said about Michaels, with tears in her eyes. “Unfortunately, she just couldn’t stop drinking.”
Starting Purse Impressions and opening up the boutique has provided Brusha with a healthy way to overcome her grief, she said.
“It’s saved my life,” Brusha said. “It’s given me a place to celebrate. This is a happy place.”
Purse Impressions’ reach has extended beyond Cave Creek, Brusha said. There are now Purse Impression chapters run by Brusha’s friends and family in Florida; Colorado; Washington, D.C.; as well as Ontario, Canada. Purse Impressions partners with 10 different rehab providers, she said.
Anyone can start a Purse Impressions chapter anywhere, Brusha said. All one needs to do is start collecting purses in their area, get in touch with a nearby rehab facility and tell them about the program. Those who want to start a chapter must also reach out to Brusha so she can send Purse Impression materials and hygiene kits, she added.
Brusha operates the boutique on her own but has a dozen volunteers who help deliver the purses to the rehab facilities, she said.
“We’d love to get more people involved,” Brusha said, mentioning how she hopes to get student volunteers and rehab graduates volunteering in the future.
“We decided this is something people need,” she said, adding that people in recovery are a “forgotten demographic.” There are charities dedicated to helping a wide range of groups, but people who are trying to overcome addiction are often overlooked, Brusha said.
“It’s great that we’re empowering the people who are in rehab,” Brusha said. “I feel like they’re all my kids. I don’t have my daughter physically anymore, but I have a whole world of kids that I feel like I’ve adopted.
“It’s a tough world out there for these people. I just want them to know that somebody is out there thinking about them.”