Pack for a Purpose—to help others

Ban Na Taer, near Vientiane, Laos.

I looked down at the shining faces of the children surrounding me, tugging at my hands and heartstrings.   They followed us everywhere in Vietnam and as I strolled through the tidy neighborhood we could see the packed earth floor and sparse furnishings of their dwellings. My resources seem so great in comparison, but how to help?

Have you ever felt like you wanted to give back to a community but couldn’t commit a year of your life to the Peace Corps, and writing a check to a faceless charity seemed too impersonal? If you’re traveling overseas this summer, consider tucking a few supplies into your suitcase that could help change lives. An organization, Pack for a Purpose, has made the concept of voluntourism (traveling with charitable intentions) very easy.

Rivertime Resort and Ecolodge

Here’s how it works. On the Pack for a Purpose website you can select your destination and find a list of accommodations who are involved in local projects. While I didn’t find Vietnam, I found Laos listed under the heading of Southeast Asia. The Rivertime Ecolodge Resort is supporting the Ban Na Taer Primary School and they listed pencils, pencil sharpeners, pens, erasers, crayons, colored pencils, chalk, rulers and soccer balls as needed items.

 Ban Na Taer  Primary School, Laos

The Rivertime Ecolodge Resort, located on the Nam Ngum River in Laos, offers visitors a chance to experience rural Lao life, working in harmony with the community. They employ villagers as staff and contribute to the health of the community through education and projects like Pack for a Purpose.  At $38 a night for a private lodge, including breakfast, I’m tempted to drop off supplies and stay awhile.

When I travel I try to leave some space for treasures I discover during my journey. When I read the list I realized how easy it would be for me to pack a couple of pounds of school supplies, or I could pick them up along the way. Instructions about how to pack the supplies are included on the site.  If you’re wondering how to transport soccer balls, it’s easy. Just deflate the balls and tape an inflation needle on the ball for easy re-inflating on the other end of your journey for an excited child who might be kicking his or her first real ball a few minutes after you arrive.

Selous Safari Camp

As I browsed the destinations I found some interesting places to visit around the world, like the Selous Safari Camp in Tanzania, collecting notepads and books for the Gomvu School.  The 55,000 square kilometer game reserve is populated with 60,000 elephants, in addition to buffalo, wild dogs and rare birds.  If you’re not into an outdoorsy vacation, perhaps the posh Ritz-Carlton in Istanbul, collecting games and children’s clothing for a school in Turkey, is more your cup of tea. The destinations had me as intrigued as the voluntourism concept and with over 100 places listed every region of the world was represented. I found myself drifting off in reveries as I pictured myself bouncing along a safari track, or visiting exotic locations in Turkey.

If your itinerary doesn’t take you near any of the drop off points you might get some good ideas about items you could bring if you are visiting an underdeveloped country.  Instead of feeling helpless when you’re corralled by a gang of impish youngsters, imagine pulling out some colored pencils or a solar calculator.

Rebecca Rothney, who, with her husband, Scott, founded the all-volunteer Pack for a Purpose in 2009, was inspired by their first trip to Africa when they saw the need and realized that out of their 100 pounds of allowed luggage they had used only 40 pounds. On subsequent trips, after securing a list of needed items from a nearby school, they were able to provide 140 pounds of school supplies to that school.

According to Rothney, who now runs the organization with Scott and six other friends, most of the items requested in communities around the world are pretty basic: school supplies, sports equipment, new or gently used children’s clothing, first aid supplies  and basic over-the-counter medicines such as aspirin, acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol®) and antibiotic creams (e.g. Neosporin®). Among the less common items requested for one area where residents were building their own schools were carpenter’s levels, trowels and other small construction equipment.

Ban Na Taer Primary School

Rothney believes that the reason there are more projects in Africa is because lodging establishments have a long history of involvement in local projects. Her group is working hard to add locations in South Asia, Southeast Asia and South America, using social media such as Twitter, Facebook and You Tube. Bloggers and PR firms representing destinations featured on the Pack for a Purpose website have been instrumental in spreading the word, for which Rothney is grateful as her grass-roots organization has no budget for publicity. These combined efforts are working as Rothney started with 25 sites when they launched in 2009, and now they have 139.

The next time I travel to an underserved area of the world I’ll look forward to checking the Pack for a Purpose website for a unique perspective on travel planning, and I’m already stocking up on soccer balls and school supplies to bring with me.


Pack For A Purpose


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