Rebecca Rothney has faith in human nature. “People do want to be kind,” she says. “They do want to be generous.” But sometimes they need a little guidance, which is why Rothney founded Pack for a Purpose . The Raleigh, N.C.,-based nonprofit organization identifies supplies that travelers can pack in their suitcases to benefit a community project at their destination.
“On your vacation,” she says, “you don’t have to spend 500 hours doing good.” Five pounds of school or medical supplies, for example, fit easily into the corner of a suitcase and can make a big difference in a developing country chronically short of everyday items.
On a trip to Botswana 11 years ago, Rothney and her husband, Scott, worked with their tour operator, Wilderness Safaris (www.wilderness-safaris.com), to deliver supplies to a local school. “I was a teacher until I was 40, and I remembered having to beg for supplies,” she recalls. But her own experience had not prepared her for the level of need she would encounter.
“Botswana is well-off for an African country, but they didn’t have a ruler in the school,” she says. “We brought 50 rulers. I thought the principal was going to weep. And, of course, they had no soccer ball. They had a pile of rags tied up with plastic. The teacher let them play soccer right away.” It was an immediate lesson in how a little goes a long way. “I was hooked,” Rothney says. “That was so easy and so meaningful.”
The Pack for a Purpose website (www.packforapurpose.org) is a centralized clearinghouse for community projects supported by resorts, hotels, expedition cruises, and safaris. While projects span the globe, sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, and Central America have the greatest concentrations of lodging and tour partners.
The websites of the individual properties and tours feature the Pack for a Purpose suitcase logo and information about community projects. The PFAP website details the projects, including the specific supplies that are needed and advice on how to squeeze the most stuff into a small space. PFAP launched with 29 partners; now there are 306, with more to come.
The PFAP website is organized by continent, then by country, and finally by lodging or tour. Travelers who are considering a vacation in Costa Rica, for example, will find 22 tour suppliers (from ecolodges to trekking expeditions) that work with PFAP.
Schools and medical clinics are the most commonly supported projects. “One of my favorite things is a stethoscope,” says Rothney. “It weighs less than two pounds and it can touch 10,000 hearts.”
But other kinds of projects abound. Several in Central America foster work by humane societies, and some in Africa aim to curb poaching. Homes for the elderly or for people with disabilities are among the choices.
In most cases, travelers drop off their bundles with their lodging or tour operator to be delivered later. But interested travelers can sometimes arrange to visit the project site through their in-country tour or lodging. Some travelers not using the services of a PFAP partner have even used PFAP to contact a project directly.
Ben Alkaly of Los Angeles visited a school in Cambodia where he delivered a duffel bag of supplies. “I only spent an hour there, but it was a really powerful experience,” he says. “I hope that what I left there at the school is substantive and will aid in their education.”
Small acts like this add up. In the first three years, PFAP has been instrumental in delivering about 17,600 pounds of supplies.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at