This Pittsburgh immigrant is helping women at the border — you can help, too

Sandra Villarroel knows what it’s like to live on the streets.

She knows what it’s like to be an immigrant leaving everything behind and moving to America for a new life.

And that’s why this Greenfield resident is helping both women in Pittsburgh and women at the border through her new project called Worth Manifesto.

She’s collecting 1,000 bags of toiletries for women at the border by the end of July, which she’ll hand-deliver to McAllen, Texas in August — and Pittsburghers can help.

Worth Manifesto is seeking the following travel-size items, which can be dropped off at collection points throughout the city before July 31.

  • Clean makeup bags (think Ipsy, Clinique, etc.)
  • Toothbrushes
  • Toothpaste
  • Shampoo
  • Conditioner
  • Soap
  • Lotion
  • Deodorant
  • Hair ties
  • Shoelaces
  • Wipes
  • First aid kits
  • Sanitary pads
  • Monetary donations to help with the costs of transporting the donated items to Texas
  • Personalized encouraging notes (Spanish suggestions here)

“The goal is to show somebody here you are valuable. We need that voice in each of the bags,” Villarroel said.

So far, she’s collected more than 300 bags from Pittsburgh, of course, and as far away as North Carolina, Alaska, and Uruguay. Some people have even offered to sew bags for the cause.

Seeking asylum is a months-long process, Villarroel explained, during which personal items are confiscated by border patrol, leaving people with nothing. (One Customs and Border Protection employee listed toilet paper, toothbrushes, rosaries, Bibles, keys, and other items among those confiscated from undocumented migrants, the New Yorker reported. Even medicines are confiscated, per Yahoo News. Donations are not accepted to help those in government facilities, TIME reported.)

Eventually, when asylum seekers are released from government border patrol facilities, immigrants are taken to private, non-profit respite centers. That’s where Worth Manifesto comes in.

This batch of bags is going to two different organizations — Valley Humanitarian Respite Center through Catholic Charities and Border Perspective, which provides support to immigrants through local churches and non-profits. Both are based in McAllen, Texas. About 300 women go through the McAllen respite center each day, Villarroel said.

“Everybody can be kind. Everybody needs to be kind. It’s good for our soul to be kind and to show compassion to other people,” Villarroel said. “The biggest setback is because some people believe this is political and because they’re against immigrants. I’m not asking people what their citizenship status is or whether they’re from one religion or the other. The idea is that we all come together to help others.”

The border crisis charity is an initiative of Villarroel’s Worth Manifesto project, which began locally and then grew.

Through Worth Manifesto, she collects unwanted makeup bags, travel-size toiletries, and makeup, then delivers these items, along with a personal note, to marginalized women in Pittsburgh, such as our homeless neighbors. In the first month of launching the program, she received hundreds of donations, which encouraged her to dream even bigger and help women outside of Pittsburgh.

It all started when she noticed more women than ever before in the streets and wanted to show value and self worth to women, in particular. With her sensitive skin, she realized she had lots of unwanted makeup and makeup bags, so she started to pool her own products and ask for donations from others.

And this wasn’t her first foray into philanthropy.

Sandra Villarroel, founder of Worth Manifesto. // Photo by Isabelle Shelby / Courtesy of Sandra Villarroel

As a wedding photographer at Sandrachile, she noticed how much food gets thrown away after weddings, and she wanted to help. If the couple permits, she’ll take leftovers to local people experiencing homelessness. When she delivers the food, she said, people are shocked to learn they’re being given a fancy meal, rather than just a sandwich, bread, or noodles.

“That is exactly my intention when I started doing this,” Villarroel said. “That reminds them of their value because it’s a special food that only special people receive. Whenever I give them the food, I tell them, ‘This food comes from a wedding, and this couple was generous because they wanted to share their love and their special day with you.'”

She continues to photograph weddings and donate food in addition to her work with Worth Manifesto.

Villarroel said she grew up in Chile in an abusive home she left at age 15. She lived without a home until the age of 21. She ended up meeting an American Marine whose ship sank in her hometown, and eventually she moved to the United States where they married.

She’s now sharing her story because she’s come to realize its impact.

“I spent years thinking, ‘Why me?’ And now this is why — I wouldn’t know how somebody in the street felt. … Because I am an immigrant I know what it’s like to come to the U.S. and leave everything behind,” she said. “Pay attention to your story because your story matters.”

And as for the people she’s helping, she emphasized, their stories matter, too.