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Purposeful Packing

An Interview with the Founder of Pack for a Purpose

Looking for an easy way to give back to the communities you travel to? Pack for a Purpose has you covered. With an extensive database of humanitarian projects and supportive accommodations, Pack for a Purpose makes it is easier than ever for travelers to learn what a community needs, pack those items in with their luggage, and have it delivered directly to the people that need them most. From school supplies, to books, to soccer balls and musical instruments, to medical supplies and clothing, numerous items have been scrunched into suitcases around the world and each delivery has brought joy, relief and well-being.

We were introduced to Pack for a Purpose at the International Ecotourism Conference in Nairobi, Kenya in 2013 and we were touched by the level of devotion we saw in the organization’s volunteers and staff members, who pack hundreds of pounds of supplies each time they hop on an international flight. Since then, we’ve encouraged international travelers to save a little space in their luggage and pack a few extra things for local communities. A little bit always goes a long way.

Recently, we had the wonderful opportunity to interview Rebecca Rothney, founder of Pack for a Purpose, about the nonprofit organization and the direction it is looking to take.     

How did Pack for a Purpose get started?

I met with my small group of friends over dinner in my home to start Pack for a Purpose in September of 2009. On December 17th, the website went live, and by January 1st, we had already had a group of Pack for a Purpose travelers taking supplies to Ecuador.

What has the organization been up to recently?

We have over 400 locations listed on our website. We’ve added a couple more tour agencies and a company that caters specifically for divers on Grand Turk, which sounds like the bigger island but it’s actually a little tiny island; we’ve already had two divers pack for a purpose.

So, we keep adding new companies and new countries; we added a new accomodation (Santa Barbara Beach and Golf Resortand project in Curacao in April. There’s a wonderful after school project happening there as well as other awe-inspiring projects that our partner hotel is supporting. I met an incredible woman there, Emma Bradshaw, who runs an after school program for 110 children out of her home. She feeds them every day. She and a few others provide tutoring, arts and crafts, and more. I mean it’s amazing. There are so many good, caring, involved people all over the world and their stories need to be told.

Could you share one or two of those stories?

I did an interview with NPR not too long ago and soon after the interview, I was contacted by a woman whose sister was a teacher and her students wanted to make quilts and blankets for children and orphans in Africa. I was asked if I knew anyone who was going to Africa and if I could find a way to get these blankets to those who needed them. I said that it just so happened that two of our Pack for a Purpose travelers were heading to Botswana and would be spending the night in Johannesburg where the organization Little Eden is located. Little Eden is an amazing project, it’s a home for mentally and physically challenged children and adults. So, they sent me the blankets and a note, I gave them to my travelers. They dropped them off at Little Eden, and I just got pictures yesterday of five kids in wheelchairs who had the blankets on. Those are the things that just make me cry. Of course, we forwarded the pictures on to the teacher and her students so they could see the joy that they helped create for the children, children they will never get to meet.

I was also just contacted by a company that is taking its 900 employees on a trip and were interested in packing for a purpose. I connected them to the nearest project and told the project managers to prepare for an immense amount of supplies and I hope they will need a moving van for everything. I mean if 10 percent of those 900 people brought five pounds of supplies each, that would be a tremendous benefit for the local project.

So, more businesses are becoming aware of the fact that no matter what kind of trip they are taking, be it an awards trip or a business meeting, they can give it more value. One of our favorite sayings is “when you pack for a purpose, the trip you take goes much further than the miles you travel.”

When did you first get the traveling bug? Where was the first place you went?

I took my first overseas trip at age 11 with my parents to Green Turtle Key in the Bahamas and never looked back. I have since visited over 45 countries and all seven continents. I have no professional background with travel. My first career was that of a middle school teacher and my second career, which I started at forty, was that of entrepreneur. My travel background is 54 years of going places. My parents taught me that meeting different people and experiencing different cultures was a wonderful way to enrich your life.

The last time we talked, you were on your way to Turks and Caicos. How did it go?

The trip was short, but very productive! We received an amazing invitation from the CEO and president of Beaches and Sandals resorts. They were opening a new village in their resort and they were hosting a huge media event that was a Pack for a Purpose event. They asked everyone to bring books for the local kids. We brought over 150 pounds of supplies and we had four suitcases packed up with 70 books, several soccer balls and tons of school supplies. We were also very excited to participate in Sandal’s Reading Road Trip program which is a program run by the Sandal’s foundation that brings visitors to schools to donate books and read with the kids. My joy was reading Green Eggs & Ham to a classroom of third graders.

What I didn’t plan for were the three TV interviews that I ended up doing (even with snorkel hair!).

Those interviews were a wonderful opportunity to spread the word and I was very grateful for them. This whole thing came out of the blue, we weren’t expecting anything like this and it was such a wonderful opportunity. All the Beaches and Sandals resort locations in the Caribbean are members of Pack for a Purpose and have received very large amounts of supplies and they are very committed to the local school systems and communities. This has been a wonderful partnership.

Where are you headed next?

At this point, our next big trip overseas will be in March 2015 to Tanzania. It will be our first visit there and we will be bringing approximately 300 lbs. of supplies to three projects we will be visiting, which are on our website. I am very excited about this opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to more places on our website.

Do you have any special techniques you use to fit all those supplies into suitcases?

The critical thing is to eliminate all excessive packaging because most places you are traveling to do not have a recycling system, but all of that extra packaging can be easily recycled in the United States before you leave. So, the other day we received a package of supplies from a wonderful company we are working with called United Stationers, and I weighed eight pounds of excess packaging that had been sent with the supplies. If you just take the materials out of the box and put a rubber band around them or put them in a baggy, it weighs a lot less. Each thing weighs an ounce but when you have 40 things, it starts to add up. You can put 200 erasers in a quart baggy. You can put 400 pencils in a one gallon baggy. We did it. It weighs five pounds.

I wouldn’t say that I am brilliant at packing. I know a few techniques to minimize waste and maximize space but when we are packing 150 pounds or 400 pounds worth of supplies, it’s a team effort with pizza parties. Some say that it’s wise to rely on the kindness of strangers, well I rely on the kindness of volunteers. We have such wonderful volunteers at Pack for a Purpose and I don’t know what I would do without them.

Are there things you are always sure to bring with you when traveling?

I try to bring clothes that can be worn more than once. Clothes that can be easily washed and hung up to dry in the room. I use small sample bottles for my lotions and soaps to save room and weight.  

Has there been a Pack for a Purpose trip in particular that has stood out for you?

That’s like asking if I have a favorite child. The first time we traveled to Africa (before we started Pack for a Purpose), we brought school supplies for a local community and that reinforced my desire to help others and to encourage other travelers to do the same. That was a very significant trip for me and was the foundation for Pack for a Purpose.

This last trip to Zambia, Scott and I were able to bring our cousin’s 16-year-old son with us (he is like our grandson), who is a great musician. We brought over 500 pounds of supplies with us including musical instruments and we met up with a group of students and had a fabulous jam session. Just to see the interaction, the joy, the infectious delight was very moving for me and it was moving for Noah, someone I love very dearly and who suddenly had a whole new perspective on the planet. The whole experience was incredibly gratifying.

What does the future look like for Pack for a Purpose?

Because of the amazing response we’ve had from Pack for a Purpose travelers, who have now brought over 20,600 kilos [45,415 lbs] of supplies to support community projects around the world, from January 2010 through May 2014, I believe our future is bright. Our initiative speaks to the kindness and generosity in people’s hearts and their willingness to extend their support beyond their local community. This ethos we hope will bring Pack for a Purpose to the point where it is the go-to website for travelers.

Until then…?

Our plan is to continue adding more countries and participants to the website so that no matter where you travel, you have an opportunity to Pack for a Purpose.

June 1, 2016
Ban Na Taer Primary School in Laos. Photo Credit: Pack for a Purpose

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