Suitcase Secrets: How To Pack for a Purpose To Make Your Travels Meaningful

Written bySiani Abrahams
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Can you start a regenerative travel experience before stepping out the front door? Absolutely. Packing can be more than a necessary chore – it’s time to bring Marie Kondo’s mindfulness into the realm of purposeful packing.

The simple idea behind nonprofit Pack for a Purpose harbors inspiring potential to transform how we view our impact as travelers, and how we interact with a host community through our travel decisions. On the dawn of their 11th year, Pack for a Purpose has grown to partner with over 460 participants in over 60 countries supporting countless community projects. The website is packed to the brim with practical tips, information for travelers, and feel good traveler and community stories. “I’m thrilled that this has resonated with so many people” reflects Rebecca Rothney, Pack for a Purpose founder.

First, as a teacher, Rebecca went on to found and run a successful company making and selling cufflinks from postage stamps, before turning her hand to the nonprofit sector. Possessing unwavering faith in her fellow travelers, after a travel agent revealed clients don’t use extra luggage space to bring supplies Rebecca set out on a mission. “I will provide [travelers] with a way to think about it, because I believe if they think about it, they’ll do it.” In exchange for a supply of chocolate mint chip cookies, “not the computer kind” she adds, Rebecca’s friends volunteered their technology know-how to help build a website offering resources and information. “I used to say that when I founded Pack for a Purpose, I thought blackberries belonged in a cobbler, text should only be found in a book, and I only spread sheets on a bed.” It is this kind of infectious zeal that makes travelers believe in any one person’s capability to affect positive change.

Rebecca, Scott and their guide Thomas at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya

On a return trip to Botswana after catching what would become Africanitis – a love for the continent and a lifelong condition – Rebecca and her husband had discovered an opportunity. Weight restrictions on smaller planes operating domestically in southern Africa, at the time, meant the initial 200 pound free luggage allowance on flights from the US encountered a roadblock. The safari operator provided a list of local school supplies needed, and a plan to bypass airborne weight limits was born, instead transporting the supplies to the school on land. Carried across the Atlantic on that first trip was 140 pounds of supplies. Encouraging friends to participate in the gathering of supplies to take to the school in Botswana, she asked them to give up just one coffee and instead spend that money on an item from the list of supplies needed. A fair trade? “The principal almost cried. Beautiful school building, but there wasn’t a single ruler in the school. And we had taken a lot of metric rulers with us, so she was overjoyed over rulers.” For such little money and luggage space, an indelible impact was left.

One of the earliest supporters and the first in South Asia, Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge founder Marcus Cotton describes how the scheme “harnesses technology, tourism operations and travellers effectively. It provides a medium of tactful communication between the property and the guest”. He notes that “guests love this approach” due to its ease, as does Sophia Klein, head of the African Bush Camps Foundation and chair of the board, who says that they “have received only positive feedback.” She highlights the appeal also lies in the way the initiative connects “travellers with the community without needing to physically visit the communities in areas where camps and properties are remote, or guest times are restricted to not allow a visit to the projects.” It can enrich travel experiences from the comfort of your own home.

pack for a purpose Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge
Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge in Nepal supported pupils at a local school

In 2014 Rebecca won National Geographic Traveller of the Year; meaningful travel requires a meaningful traveler, and for Rebecca this means understanding how to respect the host community. “Everything is community curated and community focused. The needs list comes from the community. The projects come from the community, and [the needs lists] change.” Partnering through a Pack for a Purpose member resort or tour company ensures only traveler’s best intentions are received, in the most beneficial way, by the people who can make use of it. Rebecca and her husband were always sure to bring just what was needed, reflected still in the updated lists on the website today. Colleen elaborates, “If people just bring down “stuff” it’s not always helpful and can create additional waste that has to be managed in the host community. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to the list of requested supplies.”

“It’s also important to be mindful of how donations are distributed” points out Colleen Fugate, head of Social and Environmental Impact at Playa Viva. Sharing out sweets to local children can feel like a fun exchange, but poorer communities may not be able to afford hygiene tools like toothpaste or toothbrushes, nor have access to dentists to take care of resulting sugary teeth problems. It is sometimes more in alignment with a particular community if donations are seen and travelers are not, as Marcus notes Pack for a Purpose “is a self-effacing facilitator to share community needs to travellers” as opposed to a travel experience in and of itself. Other ways of non-contact donations can take the form of either monthly or yearly donations equivalent to a student’s school fees, lunches, uniforms and supplies under Playa Viva’s Adopt a Student Program. Similarly, Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge supports a similar sponsorship scheme with guests’ generosity, whilst African Bush Camp Foundation invites student or teacher scholarship funding, amongst a host of avenues for project involvement.

pack for a purpose x African Bush Camps
Pack for a Purpose travelers from Australia taking supplies for African Bush Camps

Understanding the culture welcoming you as a traveler is a great sign of respect and for Rebecca, donations are a natural way to say ‘thank you for your hospitality”. Colleen affirms “It’s extremely important for travellers to be aware of the local culture in the host communities”. The nature of interactions between host communities and tourism are balanced with respect and curiosity, as she explains “we encourage folks to actually connect with the local community via an art class or yoga workshops and have the donations be part of the experience. In this sense, we are doing our best to avoid “white savior complex” by offering a space of deeper connection.” It is all too easy to isolate holiday experiences from the community or culture traveled to, separating both holidaymakers and local residents from authentic cultural exchange. Such opportunities hold the power to deepen world perspectives and personal understandings, as Sophia notes that truly mindful and respectful interactions “build empathy and trust in all of these relationships”.

Sophia illustrates how communities as a whole are also empowered by this approach, “By involving the communities in identifying their needs, encouraging interaction with guests in the most relevant and specific ways by educating and enabling guests to bring materials which the community have themselves identified…strengthens our relationship with the community”. Just as Marcus explains, “In Tiger Mountain’s case it entirely confirms our Community Support Partnership, whereby we assist with community-based and -led activities to ensure community ownership rather than project or property based ownership.”

Rebecca has seen how “the trip you take goes farther than the miles you travel” and is a staunch advocate for a little effort going a long way. If luggage space may appear to be a problem, she points out that “a stethoscope weighs less than a kilo, but it can touch 10,000 hearts.” Colleen notices “most guests who come to Playa Viva have a surplus of gently used clothing, school supplies or basic medical supplies at home which they can easily bring in their suitcases.” She adds, “residents in our host communities are especially grateful for the donations and are happy that Playa Viva attracts the type of clientele that wants to give back.” Regardless of the quantity or weight of a contribution, Rebecca is positive that every single donation can profoundly impact a life. “One tube of antibiotic cream, which weighs less than four ounces, can prevent 30 children from getting an infection from common cuts they might have from playing.” Effects are not contained within host communities, as packing for a purpose brings joy and a sense of connection to each agent of change – Rebecca suggests it would even be a great wedding gift.

Supplies for the school supported by Playa Viva in Mexico

Rebecca understands that anyone “can participate at any level and feel absolutely wonderful”. Pack for a Purpose participation shares a sense of hope with travelers, much like her journey building Pack for a Purpose which “reaffirmed the belief I shared…that people are really good”. At Playa Viva, Colleen notices that “participating guests often feel a deeper sense of connection to the communities and express gratitude at the opportunity to give back. Those who choose to come into the host communities often cite it as the most meaningful part of their vacation.” This idea is at the heart of Rebecca’s drive, her insistence that “everybody can express gratitude”. Learned from her mother, it’s a lesson close to her heart and one she believes we can all relate to. Growing up, she was taught to “bring something that’s useful to someone to express your gratitude for their hospitality. And the more we practice gratitude, the more we model gratitude for our children and friends, the more gracious a world we’re going to live in.” She recalls, “I thought of renaming this to Make Your Mom Happy” because it was such an instinctive concept.

With a focus on ease and accessibility, packing for a purpose is a streamlined process. An Emadri partnership offers free, specifically curated packing lists for a stress-free pre-travel experience. Further advice on all aspects for how to best pack is available, depending on whether you’re bringing medical supplies, school items or soccer balls. It only requires travelers to drop donations off at their participating accommodation or tour company, or if they’re not staying with a member then donations are still welcomed from non-guests. Sophia points out that “Traveling to a foreign country can be overwhelming with many things to think about, therefore the easier it is to access specific information on how to make the biggest impact the more effective the outcome for communities can be.”

Founder, Rebecca Rothney, packing for a purpose

Packing for a Purpose is truly as easy as checking into a hotel, and just 5 pounds/a little over 2 kilos could even fit into hand luggage. Rebecca is a beacon of positivity and promise, and after years building Pack for a Purpose she has continued working through challenges. From adjusting to technology and it’s ever changing face, to entering Pack for a Purpose into the world of social media, to the ongoing battle of fund sourcing and shouldering work as the only full time staff member. She tirelessly believes that within every person is the power to do good; “if you are persistent, if you are determined, if you see possibilities instead of problems, anyone can be a changemaker.”

Learn more about Pack for A Purpose by visiting their website here.

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