Photograph by Claudia Sanches

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Rebecca Rothney in Curacao

Photograph by Claudia Sanches

Traveler of the Year: Rebecca Rothney

Carry On—Capitalizing on a packed vacation

A Lesson on What to Pack in Your Luggage

Stuffed suitcases are nothing to be proud of—unless they’re laden with supplies for communities in need. Rebecca Rothney, a former schoolteacher in Raleigh, North Carolina, is on a mission to inspire travelers to turn extra luggage space into a philanthropic delivery device.

As founder of Pack for a Purpose, Rothney oversees an organization that within five years has delivered more than 28 tons of supplies to 425 community-based programs in 60 countries. She’s helped travelers drop off medical supplies in Kenya, books in Brazil, Frisbees in Fiji, and clothing in Cambodia.

“I grew up with the belief that if you are part of a community, you are responsible for contributing in whatever way you can,” says Rothney. This sensibility helped her see an opportunity when she first visited Botswana a dozen years ago. Her experience of bringing requested items to an undersupplied school formed the basis of Pack for a Purpose.

“I’ve learned that there is need everywhere and that appreciation and generosity are universal,” she says. And what does Rothney never leave home without packing? “Gratitude, wonder, and laughter—they require no space and enhance every trip.”

—By George W. Stone


National Geographic Traveler: Have you always been a traveler?

Rebecca Rothney: Yes—travel has always been a way to grow my awareness and enrich my perspective. I took my first overseas trip at age 11 and never looked back. As a young teenager I saved $500 babysitting—at 40 cents an hour—so I would be able to travel independently after graduating from high school. I have had the wonderful opportunity to travel to all seven continents and 60 countries so far.

NGT: How did Pack for a Purpose originate?

RR: My parents' sense of responsibility played a large part in forming my world view. I was inculcated with the belief that if you are part of a community, for however short a time, you are responsible for contributing to that community in whatever way you are able. My mother made it very clear that you always bring a hostess gift to someone to thank them for their hospitality. These two fundamental family beliefs formed the basis of my idea to create Pack for a Purpose. The Internet and mobile technology provided a platform where I could make it easy for other travelers who shared these values to participate.

NGT: Giving on the go seems to be contagious.

RR: Most definitely, yes! As long as there are travelers who listened to their mothers' advice about always bringing a hostess gift when you visit, there will be Pack for a Purpose travelers. Pack for a Purpose is sustainable as a program because the idea is simple and every traveler has the ability to participate.

NGT: How do you measure success?

RR: Pack for a Purpose travelers have delivered more than 16,000 kilos [35,000 pounds] of supplies benefiting community projects in the last four years, and we hope 2015 will see an even greater increase as we continue to spread the word. We’re adding new countries, new participants, and we’re growing across the globe. We will continue to reach out to include new places as we find them and to make sure we provide the necessary information from local sources to make the trip every traveler takes go much farther than the miles they travel.

NGT: What are your next steps?

RR: We’re looking at ways that we can obtain funding that will provide us with more human resources. We have several areas we want to explore, including increasing corporate and university Pack for a Purpose travelers who can benefit local communities.

NGT: What have you learned from your travels?

RR: I’ve learned that there is need everywhere and that appreciation, gratitude, and generosity are universal. I have discovered that, as a traveler, I am able to benefit a community in a meaningful way. And I have confirmed that travel adds joy and knowledge to my life.

Having traveled to all seven continents (we were married in Antarctica more than 15 years ago) I have learned that there is stunning beauty to behold and that it is in danger of disappearing bit by bit at an alarming rate. I have learned that the people I meet enrich my life on an ongoing basis by providing new insights and ways of seeing the world.

NGT: What’s your greatest reward?

RR: Among my greatest rewards are the stories on our website describing how families, brides, couples, and even businesses have become involved in Pack for a Purpose. Even at 65 I still believe people are fundamentally kind and caring—these accounts prove that. I am most fortunate to be able to spend my days providing travelers with an easy way to enhance their trips and benefit the communities they visit.