Going to St. Lucia this winter to bask in the sun? Why not pack some stationary, stickers and story books among your tank tops and flip-flops to help some disadvantaged kids.
That’s the way Rebecca Rothney and her team of volunteers at Pack for a Purpose think.
The idea for the Raleigh, N.C.-based website came to Rothney during her first visit to Africa with her husband Scott. They learned two things: that the weight limit for their luggage to fly to Botswana — 140 pounds — exceeded the weight permitted for domestic travel — 40 pounds. They also learned that a local school in Botswana was in need of school supplies. So they filled their bags to the limit with supplies to be donated upon arrival. Among them, deflated soccer balls, pencils, glue sticks and erasers.
On another trip to Kenya, they visited a clinic where no one had a stethoscope. “That was so outrageous to me,” when visitors to the clinic could so easily bring them one, she said.
She started Pack for a Purpose six years ago to connect travelers with projects at their destination point run by hotels or organizations that collect needed educational, medical and other materials for local groups. The website has since grown to include 450 sites on nearly all continents. To date, people have brought more than 103,500 pounds of supplies to more than 765 projects across the globe.
For example, if you’re headed to Japan, you can bring markers and stuffed animals to the Tokyo Ritz-Carlton and they will pass them along to children in orphanages.
If animals are your thing, you can tote cat food and dog snacks, collars and chew toys to the Belize Humane Society.
There are hundreds of projects listed in countries around the world, and it’s growing every day.
“We just added a project in Ecuador,” Rothney said. “Even if you don’t find a destination you’re looking for currently on the website, three months from now it may be there.”
In lieu of gifts, some couples having a destination wedding direct their guests to this website. In another case, a 14-year-old girl collected supplies from her family and friends to bring on a family vacation to support a local afterschool program in the Caribbean, said Rothney.
“It gives you a great deal of joy and faith in human beings,” she said.
Rothney works from an office in her house, where she pays volunteers in mint chocolate chip cookies. Local college students can earn academic credit by becoming interns, and if they stay on for another year, they are paid $10 an hour. She calls this core group of about a dozen volunteers her inspiration. “I wouldn’t have Instagram if it wasn’t for an intern saying, ‘You have all these photos, why don’t you have Instagram?’”
One day, Rothney would like to turn over operations to a paid executive director, and she has grand plans of connecting with study abroad programs at every school.
The premise is simple. “Everyone’s mother told them when you go to someone’s house to eat a meal, you take a gift – candy, flowers, whatever – to say thank you for your hospitality. So when you go to somebody’s country, it’s my belief you should also say thank you for your hospitality” by bringing people in that country something they could actually use. “And hopefully, that’s where our website comes in.”