Photograph by Peter Baker

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Mary Jean Jecklin and her husband, Kelley Rea, shown here at their home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, started to help travelers learn how, when, and what to give to needy children in developing countries.

Photograph by Peter Baker

Travelers of the Year: Mary Jean Jecklin & Kelley Rea

This couple saves room for giving when they pack—bringing books, toys, and medical supplies to kids in need.

Sometimes a generous heart is not enough. “When you’re traveling in the developing world, you meet so many needy people. You truly want to help, but you don’t know how,” says Mary Jean Jecklin, a 65-year-old retired teacher and writer who lives in Sarasota, Florida. “But with a little planning, travelers can give something of value wherever they go and enjoy a deeper level of engagement with the promise of a positive outcome.”

Through their website,, Jecklin and her 68-year-old husband, Kelley Rea, help travelers identify how, why, where, and what to give to needy children in developing countries.

Their advice comes from a wealth of experience. Over a period of four decades, the couple have visited more than 50 countries, touring and working in Laos, Cambodia, Morocco, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and Mexico, among others. Connecting well-intentioned donors with worthy recipients became their personal mission.

“It’s not just that you’re a do-gooder for someone else,” says Jecklin. “You feel a personal reward yourself.”

—By George W. Stone


National Geographic Traveler: Why is travel important?

Mary Jean Jecklin: The best way to understand a new country, culture, and its people is to experience it firsthand.

Kelley Rea: It forces you to break from the ordinary and predictable to the extraordinary and unpredictable.

NGT: What inspired you to travel in the way that has resulted in your being chosen as a Traveler of the Year?

KR: We started to travel not just for the pleasure of enjoying ourselves but also to reach out to less fortunate people and help them in small ways through educational and recreational gifts and financial support. Now, all of our trips incorporate these efforts. What started out as small side trips within a larger trip increasingly have become our main travel focus, one we find richly rewarding.

NGT: Do you have a personal motto or mantra that embodies your approach to life and travel?

MJJ: I like the PBS motto, “Stay Curious.”

KR: If you make many small gifts, if you work on many small projects, if you make one new friend each trip, you can make a positive difference.

NGT: What do you never leave home without when you travel?

MJJ: I always take a book of historical fiction, the longer the better, about the destination I’m visiting.

KR: Comfortable walking shoes and a shirt and pants with many pockets.

NGT: Do you have a favorite travel book or film?

MJJ: I savor James Michener’s readability, attention to detail, and historical accuracy, and Willa Cather’s lyrical descriptions of the midwestern prairies, my regional home.

KR: Blue Highways and Travels With Charley were influential in our early days of traveling. Those books taught us to seek out the hidden, off the main road, travel sites. We continue to explore, looking for the out-of-the-way craft shop, the hidden restaurant, and the less favored people in the countries we visit.

NGT: What was your most surprising food experience on your travels?

MJJ: I remember going to a morning market in Tokyo on my first trip to Asia in the early 1970s. I assumed sushi meant someone slapped a just-caught fish—head, guts, tail, and scales—on a plate, and I was expected to eat it. Naturally I was surprised and delighted when I saw my first, bite-size portions of sushi that looked like beautifully wrapped, miniature gifts.

While teaching in rural Nigeria, I learned to buy fresh cuts of meat (including heads and hooves) from a vendor who kept the flies off his merchandise by swishing an animal tail over them. Quite different from buying meat in an American grocery store, [where] everything is hygienically wrapped in clear plastic and placed on white Styrofoam trays.

NGT: Who is the most memorable person you’ve met while traveling?

MJJ: A girl in the children’s cancer ward of a Hanoi [Vietnam] hospital who smiled at me with an enormous, open, joyful expression despite being hooked to an IV and having a bald head and stick-thin legs. She touched my heart.

KR: The most beautiful person would be the child, Jeni, we met in San Miguel de Allende at Casa Hogar, an orphanage. We provided school tuition and clothing support for her. Recently, we learned she has been adopted. For a second we were sad, knowing our relationship with her was ending, but that feeling was quickly replaced by happiness, knowing she had finally found a real family and home.

NGT: What is the most beautiful place you experienced while traveling?

KR: We always say that the best or most beautiful place is our next trip, but if I had to pick places from our past trips I would say Bandera, Texas, and Srinagar, India. Bandera for the hill-country beauty, the friendly people, the beef brisket, and the Texas two-step dancing. Srinagar for the view from Shankaracharya Hill over the valley and Dal Lake—sweeping natural majesty in a placid, meditative setting.

NGT: What's one place you’ve been to that you think everyone should visit?

MJJ: I would like to inspire every American to visit a developing country and “PACforKids” to make their trip memorable for them and pleasurable for the children they meet.

I also think it’s important for Americans to visit their ancestors’ homes because it will help them understand the reasons they emigrated to America, the cultures they left behind, and the traditions they brought with them, and America’s history.

KR: We visited Ireland three times while writing a book about Irish crafts, and we were treated to a level of hospitality and friendship we had not experienced anywhere in our worldwide travels.

NGT: What’s next?

MJJ: I’m filling a big suitcase with Spanish-English books and soft toys for an upcoming trip to Peru (following PACforKids guidelines, of course).