It was in church, nearly twenty years ago, that Dawn Purcell-Buerk first heard
about Haven House, the Erie County organization that has been running a domestic violence shelter since 1979.
She was immediately moved to help.
She began collecting Christmas gifts for the women and children who live at Haven House’s secure, secret location. She asked
family members, friends, and coworkers at Kaleida Health to pitch in. Soon she was inundated with gifts. What really stunned her
was the quality of the gifts that were being donated. “There was this outpouring of support. We got really great gifts, not dollar
store coloring books,” she recalls.
Leveraging success in a quirky business to help those who need it most
For the next few years, Purcell-Buerk did the same thing every
Christmas. Then, in 2000, she made the decision to start her own business, a decision that would drastically change her ability to give back
to the community. She opened 4Play, an adult novelty company that
hosts in-home parties and also maintains an online shop. And as soon
as she did, she started using her customer base to collect more gifts
for Haven House.“I see eighty different women a weekend,” Purcell-Buerk notes. “Who else can say that? And these are professional women. School principals. Nurses. Lawyers. Or they’re stay-at-home moms.”
Purcell-Buerk's clients loved the idea of donating toys to kids in need.
Soon, she was collecting hundreds of gifts, and her operation had outgrown the needs of Haven House.
From Haven House, Purcell-Buerk moved to donating the gifts to St.
Luke’s Mission of Mercy, and then to Youth United of Buffalo, a local
secular organization dedicated to helping “youths focus on school work
and life goals.” In 2015, she collected more than 1,500 gifts. “I was get-
ting deliveries from Amazon every day,” she says. “I’d come home and
there would be a Little Tyke’s toy kitchen on my front steps. No name.
No nothing. People don’t want recognition. They just want to help.”
The vast majority of the gifts come from Purcell-Buerk’s 4Play cus-
tomers, about seventy percent, she estimates. Some of her repeat cus-
tomers only book parties in November or December in order to help
the business owner collect more
presents. The rest of the gifts come from Facebook
grandparents who took in
their five grandchildren;
a family with seven foster
children; and a family in
which the husband has
cancer and the wife had to
quit her job to care for him.
friends, of which she has thousands.
Facebook helped inspire the latest iteration of her
Christmas project. For 2016, instead of working with
an organization, Purcell-Buerk took on the task of
basically becoming her own gift-giving organization.
At the parties she hosted, she kept hearing stories of
families who’d fallen on hard times, but didn’t qualify for any sort of government programs or assistance.
She decided those were the families she wanted to
concentrate on—those slipping through the cracks.
So she asked her Facebook friends to submit the
names of families that could use some help, and the
nominees came flooding in.
Those Purcell-Buerk helped included grandpar-
ents who took in their five grandchildren; a family
with seven foster children; and a family in which the
husband has cancer and the wife had to quit her job
to care for him. Any extra gifts were sent to Buffalo
City Mission, which runs Cornerstone Manor, a shel-
ter for women and families “seeking protection from
city streets or an abusive relationship.”
It’s not just about getting the “gifts under the
tree,” either. Purcell-Buerk has made caring for Buf-
falo’s residents an all-year endeavor. In the spring, she
collects Easter baskets for St. Luke’s Mission. In late
summer, she begins a school supply drive to ensure
that neighborhood children have full backpacks for
the new school year. In 2016, those backpacks end-
ed up at PS 99, the Stanley M. Makowski Early
Childhood Center, which serves students in pre-kin-
dergarten through grade four. In the winter, she col-
lects warm clothes, blankets and sleeping bags, boots,
hats, gloves, scarves, and even instant hand warmers
to be distributed by St. Luke’s.
Operating the business also allowed Purcell-Buerk
to start working part-time only at Kaleida, which gave
her more time to volunteer as a baby rocker in the
neonatal intensive care unit at Women and Children’s
Hospital; or at St. Luke’s, where she distributes meals;
or at the Mission Mall, where she organizes clothes.
“I’m just one person,” she says. “I’m just trying to
make a difference. I’m trying to be a good human, not
a good Christian.”
Erin Maynard is a writer and editor who works in the
University at Buffalo office of communications.
BY ERIN MAYNARD