Travel Tips

Packing With Purpose: Donating When You Travel

Packing With Purpose: Donating When You TravelWhether you rely on a checklist or have the process down to a science, packing for a trip is no easy tasks. But did you know that items in your suitcase can affect another life? Leslie Garrett, The Virtuous Traveler, investigates how travelers can pack their bags with the goal of helping others.

Comfortable shoes. Check.
Impossible-to-wrinkle dress. Check.
Deodorant. Check.

It’s not often we pack purpose when we get ready for a trip. Unless it’s referring to the purpose of our travel, i.e., business or pleasure.

But purpose? As in life-altering purpose? Isn’t that what church is for? Or therapy?

SuitcasesSome travelers, however, pack purpose as a matter of course. A sense of purpose around where they go. But also what they take with them.

Ian Forsyth, for example, travels only with a purpose these days: to build homes for those affected by the tsunami. After losing everything that ill-fated day in 2004, there are still folks waiting for a permanent living space. Through Trip Canada, a not-for-profit that takes people to locations needing help with projects, Forsyth has found a purpose in his travels.

But he also packs purposefully, filling his bags with items that are unavailable but highly prized in Sri Lanka where he does his work.

Items such as levels and trowels. Dollar-store eyeglasses.  Those “stick-up” lights for hard-to-reach places.

“The families I’ve met take education seriously,” explains Forsyth. But since they have oil lamps, “it’s hard for the kid to do homework at night.” Not so with stick-up lights.

Packing With Purpose - Suitcases & LuggageLinda Granfield, a children’s writer who frequently visits Cuba,  routinely takes extra shampoo and pens— inexpensive to us, she says, but valuable to Cubans. Granfield says a gift of a small multi-purpose tool— a sort of Swiss Army knife—to a man raking leaves  around the hotel prompted a smile that “lasted for days … when he realized how many jobs the inexpensive-for-us tool could manage.”

Granfield and her husband, who are also involved with the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), use their trips to Cuba to help out the IBBY chapter there, taking paper clips, paper and pens to help a small publisher of children’s school books.

That’s exactly the type of packing for a purpose that Rebecca Rothney aims to convince us all to undertake. Rothney awakened to her purpose on a trip to South Africa in 2002, when she discovered a local school.

Packing With Purpose - Donating Items When traveling“It was a nice building,” she says, “but they had not even a ruler.” The kids, she noted, played with a ball of rags tied up with plastic.

Rothney returned home with a personal mission and the name of her Web site,

The idea, she explains, is to connect people who are happy to pack a little something extra with projects that are seeking that something. Ideally, Rothney says, people support the local economies of the places they’re visiting to offer up supplies or clothing. But often, what these projects most need just isn’t available there. So travelers need to pack it.

Like stethoscopes, which was on the wish list of a clinic in Kenya. “A clinic without even a stethoscope,” says Rothney, incredulous.

Some places need pencils. Band-Aids. Neosporin.

All of which they have now, thanks to Rothney. But save the accolades. The beauty of Rothney’s idea, she says, is that anyone can do it.

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“I’m not Mother Theresa,” she laughs. “If I can do this, anyone can.”

All she does, she says, is eliminate the logistical issues. “I can’t stand the thought of people arriving somewhere and thinking ‘If I had known, I would have brought …’”

Her site currently includes vetted projects ranging from Ecuador to Mozambique, with each project’s wish list. Type in your destination and find out what you can pack.
It’s deceptively simple, which can belie how impactful an act it is. Rothney is always looking to add more and encourage those who know of projects seeking supplies to let her know.

From there, she’ll pass the information on to others.

“I know we’re not missionaries,” says Rothney, “we’re travelers.” This is one small but impactful way our travels can truly have purpose.

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By Leslie Garrett for Leslie Garrett is author of The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide for a Better, Kinder, Healthier World. Visit her at