TAMPA — Kim Washington hauled bag after bag from the trunks of shining luxury cars, lugging them to the floor of the Dress for Success boutique.
"My fingers are going to fall off in a minute," she said.
This was the hefty culmination of a little idea. Of four months spent piling purses in her New Port Richey garage, first a few, then a few more, then a few dozen.
Earlier this week, Washington and friends donated hundreds of purses, clothing items, hair dyes and sticks of deodorant to Dress for Success, which helps disadvantaged women develop wardrobes and interview skills to land jobs.
Purses are the punctuation. They go everywhere. They matter more than you think.
Women referred to Dress for Success for suits might have only backpacks or juvenile totes, old, frayed purses too small to hold resumes. Clients afraid to make eye contact on the way in leave the boutique proud of the leather gem hanging from their shoulder.
"Women love designer purses," said Dress for Success volunteer Sharon Glenn. "For them to come in and shop and know that they don't have to pay for it? Oh, man."
Washington's campaign is called 2nd Chances. In some ways, it's a mirror for her own life.
She worked in corporate America as a call center recruiter. She answered pages and emails during nonexistent lunches, struggled to find time to pick up her children. She was quickly flaming out. When her son got ill and went into the hospital, she quit.
She started selling handbags with a direct sales company called Thirty-One Gifts. The family was making it.
Then her husband got laid off. They spiraled into debt. Washington threw herself into her business.
Within a few years Washington was earning six figures and had a team of almost 4,000 consultants.
"I worked harder," said Washington, 43. "I think that's what really propelled my business for the next couple of years. Too many women get frustrated with a challenge like that and give up. I try not to give up."
She donated to charities, schools and domestic violence shelters, but it felt unorganized and random. She heard about Dress for Success at a Thirty-One party. She loved the idea.
She asked guests at Thirty-One parties to bring a purse in exchange for a discount. Some women forgot. Some brought purses that looked too rough.
But others brought fine-leather bags. Louis Vuitton and Dooney & Bourke. Woven satchels and polished briefcases. Red clutches and animal-print shoulder bags.
Washington and her consultants amassed hundreds of bags, and that was just in Tampa Bay.
Earlier this week, she stood back and admired the pile.
"Wow, ladies," she said. "This is impressive."
A Dress for Success client walked past with her new suits and bag, a dainty white pocketbook she'd selected off the boutique's depleted wall of purses.
Soon, the wall would overflow again.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.