Five pounds of change

Rebecca Rothney, AB ’71

Rebecca Rothney in her home in Raleigh, North Carolina
Rebecca Rothney is founder and chairperson of Pack for a Purpose, which enables travelers to donate much-needed items when they travel abroad. Photo by Ethan Hyman, Raleigh News and Observer

It started with rulers.

Rebecca Rothney, AB ’71, was traveling to Botswana for the second time and realized she wasn’t going to use her luggage allotment. She asked her travel agent if there was a school that needed supplies. Rothney had been a teacher and remembered her own struggle to get school supplies. The safari company provided her with a list of needed supplies for a local school, and Rothney gathered 140 pounds of supplies, which she and her husband, Scott, personally delivered. Among the supplies were rulers.

“There were no rulers in the school, none,” Rothney recalls. “And when I saw the impact the supplies made on the school, on the principal, I told my husband, ‘We need to do this every time we travel.’”

That is often. Rothney fell in love with travel as a kid when her parents took her on trips to Mexico and the Bahamas. She hung out with an international crowd at the university and bought her first ticket to Europe when she studied abroad in London while at WashU where she majored in English. After graduating, she taught in India and later got married in Antarctica.

When she wasn’t traversing the world — Rothney has visited 46 countries and all 7 continents — she taught history in Raleigh, North Carolina, schools. Her focus was on non-Western cultures, which included Asia, Africa and the Middle East. To enhance her classroom, she joined the International Affairs Council to meet visitors brought in by the State Department. She would host them for dinner and persuade them to talk to her students.

When she was 40, Rothney retired from teaching to start her own business, RHCreations Inc., which made cufflinks from historical and international postage stamps. She still traveled extensively, and in 2002, she brought her first round of supplies to Botswana and continued to take supplies during several more trips to Africa.

Then, when she traveled to Kenya in 2008, she asked her travel agent if all of his clients used their extra luggage space to bring needed supplies. He said no, that most people didn’t think about it. Rothney wanted to change that. She told her husband that she was going to start a nonprofit to make it easy to donate supplies when traveling abroad.

Her husband’s response was to laugh. “At that point,” Rothney says, laughing herself, “I didn’t type my own emails. I don’t like computers, because you can’t influence them like you can people.”

Not to be deterred, with the help of amazing friends, volunteers, and her special, freshly baked mint-chocolate chip cookies, she founded Pack for a Purpose, which allows travelers to find out what is needed in the country they’re visiting and instructs them on where to drop off donations (which usually doesn’t necessitate a site visit, but can be done at the front desk of your hotel or resort.)

“I just think of it as a way of expressing gratitude,” Rothney says. “And that’s what every traveler should pack in their luggage, gratitude, because you’re lucky enough to be able to travel.”

The nonprofit started in 2009, and it now connects travelers to more than 425 places in 60 countries that are in need of supplies. Eagle scouts, honeymooners, businessmen and families have all “packed for a purpose,” transporting more than 220,000 pounds of supplies.

For her efforts, Rothney was named one of National Geographic’s 2014 Travelers of the Year, and her organization was awarded a 2012 Global Vision Award by Travel + Leisure magazine and shortlisted for The Observer Ethical Awards in 2013.

Rothney encourages people to donate as many supplies as they are able, but even 5 pounds (or 2.27 kilos) can make a difference. She remembers when she was headed to Africa on another occasion and bringing in supplies for a clinic. Doctors there asked for a stethoscope and blood-pressure cuff. She ended up bringing them two stethoscopes and four blood-pressure cuffs, and developing a key message: “A stethoscope weighs less than a kilo,” Rothney says, “but it can touch 10,000 hearts.”

To learn how you can make every trip go farther than the miles you travel click here.

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