Women open their purses and show their power

More than 500 women, along with a few men, packed into a ballroom at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, Friday afternoon for the annual Power of the Purse, a Scotiabank-sponsored fundraiser that benefits the Cayman Islands Crisis Centre women’s shelter.

“It’s a great cause and a great group of women,” said Emma Gladstone, with McCormick Global Ingredients.

Before the luncheon, she was mingling in the crowded hallway where tables were lined with designer purses, each with a silent auction sheet. Initial bid prices on the purses ranged from $50 for a Mark Jacobs black diamond clutch to $1,638 for a black purse by Longchamp Paris Premier.

Ms. Gladstone was carrying a purse by Diane Von Furstenberg.

“I actually bought that at this event two years ago,” she said. “It’s been my go-to bag for the last two years so it was a great investment.”

Ania Milanowska is executive director of the Cayman Islands Crisis Center, which has been in operation for 15 years. She said the Power of the Purse event, now in its fourth year, has made a big difference for her organization.

“Every year we have to raise $350,000,” Ms. Milanowska said. “This is a huge amount of money in reaching that goal.”

The event is a chance to not only bring attention to domestic violence, but to such issues as equality in the workplace.

Scotiabank’s managing director Dwight Burrows told the gathering how an internal program in recent years had increased the company’s ratio of women in executive roles from 7 percent to 50 percent.

“And,” he joked, “it goes without saying that they make 100 percent of the decisions.”

The event’s keynote speaker, Jennifer Thompson, shared her story of surviving a rape and, years later, coming to terms with having helped send an innocent man to prison for the crime.

“Whatever we do, whatever we say, has great impact,” she told the crowd.

In 1984, when Ms. Thompson was a 22-year-old college student, she woke up to find a strange man in her apartment. He grabbed her and put a knife to her throat. She offered him her car and money.

“He said, ‘I don’t want your money,’” she recalled. “That’s when I knew what was going to happen.”

She shared the story of how, after being raped, she escaped her apartment and was able to find help. During her ordeal, she said, she had concentrated on cataloging details about her attacker. When she was presented with both a photo and a live lineup, each time she confidently identified Ronald Cotton.

He was convicted largely on her testimony and spent 11 years in prison before a DNA test proved he had not committed the crime.

Ms. Thompson recalled getting that news one night in a phone call.

“I don’t remember what happened next,” she said. “I’m told that I fell to the floor and I screamed and I cried.

“I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt,” she added. “I felt fear. Ronald Cotton would hate me. He was going to be released from prison and he would want revenge.”

She asked officials to set up a meeting between her and Mr. Cotton. She asked him for forgiveness.

“He took my hand and said, ‘I forgave you years ago,’” she said.

Ms. Thompson wrote about their ensuing friendship in her book, “Picking Cotton.” She became an advocate for criminal justice reform and correcting wrongful convictions, founding the nonprofit group Healing Justice.

“There is beauty where we are broken,” she told the crowd. “At the end of the day, we’re all here to walk each other home.”

Jennifer O’Leary, Scotiabank’s marketing and communications manager, told those attending the event that it had raised $100,000 in its first three years. This year’s crowd was the largest yet.

Ms. Milanowska said the money raised would help the center get closer to its goal of building a $1.2 million facility to replace its existing shelter.

Attendee Eileen Keens, with Yello Media Group, said the event could be a model for others.

“It’s time for us to get together and do more events like this,” Ms. Keens said. “There’s so much about the power that women have. I think we’re standing for all women by being part of these events.

Besides the silent auction for purses, she noted there were people selling raffle tickets for prizes. Direct donations were also accepted.

“There’s so many ways to help, so many ways to support,” she said, “and, at the same time, have fun.”