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Throw together 450 women, 206 purses and 1,800 glasses of wine, and something’s bound to happen.

In this case, $65,000 to support homeless families and women struggling to afford a college education.

Chalk it up to the "Power of the Purse," a fundraiser/silent auction launched in 2015 by the United Way of Champaign County.

Disclosure: I am not a purseaholic, but I attended the May 11 Power of the Purse at Pear Tree Estates courtesy of a friend.

The event is built on a premise: Women like purses. Women like to go out with friends. Women like good food and wine. Women like to support the community.

Kind of a "girls night out" for charity.

United Way CEO Sue Grey said she and her team had been brainstorming for several years about "doing something fun" to raise money to support community needs.

A co-worker heard about the success of Peoria United Way’s Power of the Purse event in 2014, and Grey decided, "If it plays in Peoria, it can play in Champaign-Urbana."

United Way staffer Becca Guyette put together a committee of volunteers to launch the event. It’s a group of women, so "they’re not afraid to say what they think," Grey said.

They approached Pear Tree Estates because it’s a women-owned business, run by sisters Annie and Lauren Murray, who originally launched LA Gourmet catering. They agreed to host and provide in-kind donations.

Other women-owned boutiques and small businesses pitched in that first year. Checkered Moon and Fira donated purses. Champaign Jewelers, then in its first year of operation, offered a piece of fine jewelry for a raffle (which netted $1,200 this year). El Toro donated the all-important sangria. Other sponsors, including Northwestern Mutual, supplied cash.

After the first year, Jim Barham from Barham Benefit Group approached Grey and asked how he could help.

"Next thing I know I get a package in the mail with this amazing purse from the Bulgari store on Rodeo Drive" in Beverly Hills, she said.

This year, the package came from the Louis Vuitton store courtesy of Barham, who makes regular trips to California to visit friends and family, she said.

Tickets for Power of the Purse are $50 a head, and sell out each year with little publicity. This year, it took just six minutes, said logistics committee chair Jennifer Newell.

"You can go out there with your friends and have drinks and get great food," and support a good cause, said Newell, who donated purses this year and also bought two.

"We went through 1,800 glasses of wine this year," Grey said. "We used every piece of stemware they owned."

The United Way buys purses year-round for the auction, about $11,000 worth, in varied price ranges — from Target and TJ Maxx to Nordstrom’s and top designers.

"By March, I’m kind of purse drunk. I cannot shop for one more purse," Grey said.

This year, 40 of the women attending also donated purses to get an early shot at tickets.

All but two of the 206 purses sold — even one shaped like a chicken, which went for $200 after a bidding war, probably because it had a gift card for Watson’s Shack and Rail inside. Or people just like chickens.

The auction uses a program with a phone app called Bidpal, which lets you browse the purses for sale and tells you if you’ve been outbid. It also gives the United Way key data, such as which purses sold the best and which price was the "sweet spot" for most buyers (somewhere between $200 and $400).

This year’s top seller? The Louis Vuitton bag, which went for $2,300.

People know it’s a fundraiser, so they’re willing to pay more, Grey said.

Net profits have steadily grown, from $26,000 in 2015 to $50,000 last year to $65,000 at this month’s event — $141,000 in all.

The money is split between the United Way’s new family emergency shelter and the Power of the Purse scholarship fund at Parkland College. So far, about $28,000 has gone to the fund and $45,000 to the shelter, though this year’s proceeds have yet to be allocated, Grey said.

The shelter, an eight-unit apartment building on Park Street in Champaign, has housed 53 families since it opened last June. That includes 108 children "who were not in a car or a park or somewhere, but had a safe place to sleep at night."

The fundraiser helps cover costs for the case manager, who meets with each family to find out how they got there and formulate a plan to help them get back on their feet. About 61 percent have made it back into stable housing, Grey said.

The scholarship fund has given out $20,000 to 15 women, including Laura Wilson of Villa Grove, a single mom who hopes to earn her bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Wilson, 29, went through a divorce three years ago and has been working two home-health jobs to support her three young children while attending Parkland. Her scholarship from the United Way helped pay for the expenses not covered by her financial aid, and allowed her to cut back on her second job so she can spend more time with her children.

"I don’t want them to ever feel like they’re getting the shaft because I’m going back to school. I was a stay-at-home mom before the divorce. This has been an immense amount of change for them," she said.

The scholarship was "just such a huge relief," said Wilson, who spoke at the purse event.

"She was amazing," Newell said.

Grey said Power of the Purse allows women to "be part of something that’s bigger than themselves."

"I think it’s really unique that women can do this for other women," Newell said.


Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 351-5226, or