Packing A Vacation Suitcase To Help Those In Need

Mar 17, 2014

A nonprofit organization called Pack for a Purpose is encouraging international travelers to use some of their luggage space to carry medical and school supplies to their vacation destination.

The organization has teamed up with local lodging, tour agencies and community organizations in countries across the globe to find out what items are needed, from pencils and soccer balls in schools to clothes and toiletries in orphanages.

Rebecca Rothney, founder of Pack for a Purpose, joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to talk about how setting aside some extra space in your luggage can help those in need.


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Well, if you are also traveling, maybe outside the country, bring your stethoscope - yes - or deflated volleyballs, to bring to someone in need at your destination. Rebecca Rothney is chairperson of the website Pack for a Purpose and she joins us from WUNC in Durham, North Carolina. Rebecca, how does this work?

REBECCA ROTHNEY: It's actually very, very simple. If you're traveling anywhere in the world - at the moment, that includes 54 countries and over 389 types of lodgings and tour companies - you click on our website, you select the destination, little suitcases marked Africa or Caribbean or South America. You find the country or area, region you're going to. And there you'll find a list of all hotels, lodgings, bed and breakfast, tour companies that are supporting community projects where they work.

YOUNG: So the idea is you find the community project, you find out what they need, which they can tell you on the website - it might be pencils for kids or it might be a stethoscope - and then you just, what, put it in your suitcase?

ROTHNEY: You bring it with you. It's like a hostess gift website, actually. So that you can bring the perfect hostess gift, like all our mothers taught us to do, to say thank you for the wonderful hospitality you're going to enjoy. All the needs list come to us from the local source. If they get everything they need in one area, they simply email us and we take those items down, and we add new items as the needs arise. So it can be very current, which is important because you don't want to take something that's not really needed by anybody.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well - and so your website serves people who are traveling and want to just bring something along for people who live where they're going, also for the organizations that need help.

ROTHNEY: Absolutely. Well, one of the things that's so wonderful about Pack for a Purpose is that brides and grooms have packed for a purpose. We have a bride right now I've been emailing with going to Antigua, where her parents are from originally, to get married. And instead of wedding gifts, she asked that all of her guests coming there bring supplies for the project being supported at the Sandals in Antigua, which is a school.

We've had business schools do it. We've had businesses do it. We've had people with young children have their own children go and help pick out the supplies and pack for a purpose.

YOUNG: Well, talk for a second. You just mentioned businesses. How might they do this?

ROTHNEY: There are several different ways they can do it. Sometimes businesses offer reward programs or trips for people who've excelled at doing whatever they were required to do. We had a group from Texas who was going to the Fairmont Mayakoba in the Riviera Maya, and they took seven suitcases full of supplies. I guess they felt they didn't need a lot of heavy clothing going to the Riviera Maya. This Fairmont Mayakoba supports two different projects. One is something with a local animal shelter, and there's another project for children.

So the people in the business divided up the supplies between the needs for the children and the needs for the animal shelter, and they brought them down and delivered them and then went on and had a fabulous time on their vacation.

YOUNG: That's great. I'm looking - I've clicked on South America. I clicked through to Brazil. I see the two lodgings there that are participating, the Cristalino Jungle Lodge and the Favela Adventures.

ROTHNEY: Favela Adventures is actually a tour company. So they've arranged all theses tours at the favela, and the money goes directly back to help projects in the favela itself.

YOUNG: The favela, the - some of these impoverished neighborhoods in Brazil. And I also see listed some of the other support groups. So there's Casa Grande Association. They help children get free education, social support, hygiene support. So you learn about the participants, and you learn about the organization. And that's important because you're not telling people to go directly to a charity, for instance.

ROTHNEY: Oh, absolutely. The whole point of Pack for a Purpose is you literally choose the supplies from the needs list, and the supplies are very specific. You put them in your luggage. You get where you're going. If you're using a tour company when they meet you at the airport, which they'll do, you simply take the supplies out of your suitcase, go here, give them to the person from the tour company, and they deliver them to the project.

If you're staying at the Fairmont Mayakoba, you just drop them off at the front desk. Sometimes you might want to visit the school, and the school might want to have guests. And then at the local source, they can arrange that for you. But you're choosing to do this because your mother taught you to bring a hostess gift.

YOUNG: Rebecca Rothney, how did you come up with this idea?

ROTHNEY: The second time we had the privilege of going to Africa, to Botswana, the touring company we were using, Wilderness Safaris, mentioned that we could go visit a school. And I had been a teacher till I was 40 in North Carolina and had to scrounge for school supplies, and I realized we had four suitcases between my husband and I that we had no need for because we were flying in very small planes, six-seater Cessnas back then. And they actually weighed you and the luggage, and you were allowed 22 pounds.

So I thought, well, we have all this free transportation. Why don't we fill it full of school supplies for the school in Botswana? So I called up Wilderness Safaris or emailed them and said, what are the needs of the school? And they sent me a list, and I just told all my friends, don't have a coffee today. Whatever you'd spend on that coffee, buy something on this list and we'll take it to Africa. So we got the supplies to Botswana.

We actually got to go to the school in that instance. We saw a couple of kids outside, and they were playing with a ball of rags tied up with plastic as their soccer ball. We went and met with the principal. And as we were unloading the supplies, I think she almost wept when she saw the rulers. There wasn't a single ruler in the school. And, of course, the children were allowed to play with the soccer balls right away at recess so it was just an incredible experience.

And I thought, well, I need to do this every time I travel. So over the next several years as we went to Africa again and again, we always took supplies. And then when we went to Kenya in 2008, the place we were staying had a website and they had a clinic and a school. So I emailed them and asked the clinic: If you could have whatever you wanted, what would you like us to bring you? And their answer was a stethoscope and a blood pressure cuff because they had neither, which I found quite appalling.

So I said to my travel agent, well, don't all of your clients take supplies in the excess luggage they don't need? And he said, no. They don't think about it. And I thought, OK. Well, then I need to help them think about it.

YOUNG: Well - and the thing about this is a stethoscope weighs nothing. Soccer balls can be deflated...

ROTHNEY: One pound.

YOUNG: Yep. One pound.

ROTHNEY: One pound with the air. We like to say at Pack for a Purpose that a stethoscope weighs less than a kilo, but it can touch 10,000 hearts.

YOUNG: There you go. And, Rebecca, great idea, four years old. How has it gone? I mean, how many people have done it? How much has moved?

ROTHNEY: We don't know how many people per se although some people do email us directly. And when you go to our website, we encourage them to post their own your stories with photos. And we also have blogs. But we require everyone on our website to report back to us three times a year so we kind of cover everybody's high season and low season. And in four years, Pack for a Purpose travelers have taken over 16,000 kilos of supplies to destinations across the globe.

YOUNG: Well, it's just a terrific idea. Rebecca Rothney, chairperson of Pack for a Purpose, encouraging travelers to bring a hospitality gift to the country you're traveling to, to help people there in need. Rebecca, thank you.

ROTHNEY: It's been an honor.

YOUNG: And we'll link you at From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.