Growing up in suburban Detroit, Jackie Bobcean watched her alcoholic father, a police officer, unleash his rage on her mother and younger brother nearly every day.
“More than a dozen times, I recall hiding my brother in the closet and trying to stop my dad from choking my mom,” says Bobcean, 50, a former teacher’s aide.
“I was the only one in the family who stood up to him,” she says.
When her brother Billy, who had a learning disability, committed suicide on Christmas Eve 2003 after decades of their father’s verbal abuse, Bobcean, a married mom of two, decided that was the final straw.
“I knew I needed to do something to help stop the cycle of domestic violence,” she says.
So in 2006, she launched HandBags of Hope out of her Eastpointe, Mich., home. The nonprofit collects gently used handbags and purses for women who’ve fled an abusive relationship, often with only the clothes on their backs and their children in tow.
Run purely on donations, Bobcean and 20 volunteers fill the handbags with daily necessities like makeup, hair brushes, manicure sets, pens, calendars, pocket tissues, but most importantly, handwritten messages of support (“You are loved,” “God bless your journey”).
“It’s our small way of letting a woman know she did the right thing by standing up for herself,” explains Bobcean, who says the organization has so far given away 17,000 handbags and counting. (No one in the organization, including Bobcean, gets paid.)
“For many survivors who arrive at our shelter,” says Jan Mancinelli, executive director of the Women’s Resource Center of Northern Michigan, “these handbags help give them everything they need to face another day.”
Some of the volunteers – who, like Bobcean, are abuse survivors – go a step further, writing lengthy letters to be tucked inside a handbag with their phone number in case the recipient wants to reach out.
“A woman once told me she kept one of our notes in her purse as a reminder that there was a little bit of love inside,” Bobcean adds. “And that was all she needed to keep going.”
More Heroes Among Us:
Know a hero? Send suggestions to email@example.com. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine