Many American children may have a problem reaching their favorite-colored calculator on the top shelves at Wal-Mart, but some children in other countries have nothing to reach for. They have no access to vital school supplies.
Rebecca Rothney founded Pack for a Purpose in 2009 to bring school supplies to impoverished children around the world.
Rothney said she found an opportunity to help school kids in impoverished areas when she and her husband travelled to Africa in 2002 for a safari. Although the safari limited her to 40 pounds of luggage, Rothney found she could still transport up to 140 pounds of luggage on her flight. So when she and her husband started planning their second safari in Botswana, they started to look for ways to use the extra 200 pounds allotted to them.
They found their answer in Botswanan schools.
After contacting the safari company, the couple worked to use their safari to help provide Botswanan schoolchildren with supplies.
“It was my belief as a teacher, [because] I had to beg for school supplies in North Carolina years ago, that they would certainly need school supplies,” Rothney said. “I contacted the safari company because it wasn’t like the schools have Internet and can email me. The safari company found out what we needed.”
After her second trip to Africa, Rothney realized she wanted to continue to help stock African schools with supplies.
“The next time we went, AIDS had broken out in a big way, so there were a lot more orphans. We figured that now we needed gently used children’s clothes,” Rothney said. “So we talked to all of our friends with kids and we ended up bringing around 160 pounds of children’s clothes.”
After that trip, others started hearing about what they were doing and three couples wanted to come along on their next trip: South Africa.
According to Rothney, during the time she and her husband visited South Africa, the Pafuri district in the northeastern part of the country started to build schools but lacked resources to stock them with supplies.
“They had nothing, so we told the couples that if they wanted to come, they had to bring 150 pounds of school supplies,” Rothney said. “So we brought 450 pounds of school supplies with us [and the safari tour company] brought the supplies to the area.”
A Kenyan clinic was their next stop. Rothney emailed staff members telling them they could have whatever they wanted, and they replied with two needs: a stethoscope and a blood pressure cuff.
Rothney was taken aback.
“I thought to myself ‘You must be joking — how do you have a clinic and not a stethoscope?’” Rothney said. “So I called my friend who was a nurse with Duke and four days later I had two stethoscopes and a blood pressure cuff. Then I went to my doctor and ended up with a boxful.”
Rothney said she thought all people brought something when they traveled, but her travel agent said people just don’t think about it.
Rothney said she couldn’t help but think about bringing stuff to give whenever she travelled.
“You don’t go anyplace without a hostess gift. You don’t go to someone’s house for lunch, or dinner or a weekend without bringing something as a thank-you for their hospitality,” Rothney said.
With that philosophy in mind, Pack for a Purpose was born, Rothney said. A group of people supporting Pack for a Purpose met in September 2009, and by December the organization was on the Internet.
The website features lists of items that can be brought by travelers.
“[The lists] are an important part of our website,” Rothney said. “If you bring things to people they haven’t asked for and don’t need, it’s no help. If you want to dump your closet, that’s fine — give it to Goodwill.”
On the Pack for a Purpose website, the community-based projects supply the information to the lodgings so they can fill out the “needs list” that changes when beneficiaries receive the items they need.
Publicity plays a major part in the continuation of Pack for a Purpose, Rothney said. Without travelers, the supplies would not get to their rightful destinations.
“The travelers find us,” Rothney said. “We are in every Costco magazine on planet earth, so if you shop at Costco and look at the Costco Connection, there we are.”
Aside from the Costco magazines, Pack for a Purpose has been featured in the Boston Globe, The Oprah Magazine, National Geographic Traveler and many more publications.
“We don’t find the travelers. We find the community projects that the travelers can be helpful to.” Rothney said. “We started out with 29 locations and now have [more than] 300.”
According to Rothney, a lot of the credit is due to the volunteers who have helped over the years.
“Nobody gets paid around here with anything except cookies — they are amazing,” Rothney said. “When you move to this area and have a non-profit that is worthwhile, there is an amazing wealth of incredible university talent.”
Rothney said if you ask people to do a little, they will do it. If you ask people to do a lot, they will find a million reasons why they cannot do anything.
“I can’t make them do it, darn it, but I can make them think about it,” said Rothney. “And if it’s easy for them to think about and it’s easy for them to do it, then I believe people will do it — and they have.”
After helping provide 18,000 pounds of supplies for 45 countries within three years, it seems like Rothney’s method has caught on.
“A stethoscope weighs less than 2.5 pounds but can touch 10,000 hearts,” Rothney said. “This is not a charity. This is about saying thank you for your hospitality, but doing it in a way that is actually meaningful to the host.”