Wake County

Tar Heel of the Week: Rebecca Rothney encourages packing to help others

Rebecca Rothney, founder and chairperson of Pack for a Purpose, poses in her home in Raleigh Thursday, October 6, 2014. Rothney is standing in front of a weaving she got in Lesotho, Africa.
Rebecca Rothney, founder and chairperson of Pack for a Purpose, poses in her home in Raleigh Thursday, October 6, 2014. Rothney is standing in front of a weaving she got in Lesotho, Africa. ehyman@newsobserver.com

For Rebecca Rothney, the soccer balls and stethoscopes she started bringing on her frequent trips to Africa in 2002 were like bringing flowers to a dinner party – a gift to a country she visited that her Georgia-born mother would appreciate.

“My mother would drop dead if I went to someone’s home for dinner, and certainly if I spent a weekend, and didn’t bring them a hostess gift,” says Rothney, with her typical hyperbolic humor.

Yet she soon realized that few people were maxing out their airlines’ weight allotment for luggage with supplies for local schools when they traveled.

So she decided to make it easier for them by founding Pack for a Purpose, a Web-based nonprofit group that connects travelers with schools and clinics that provide lists of needed supplies.

In the five years since the organization got going, travelers have brought more than 20,000 pounds of supplies to more than 400 locations worldwide. The group has earned mention in several national publications, and Rothney is featured in the current issue of National Geographic as one of the magazine’s “Travelers of the Year.”

Travel is a passion for Rothney, who has visited every continent – and more than 40 countries – and has brought international guests to her North Raleigh home for 26 years through the International Visitor Leadership Program.

In Pack for a Purpose, Rothney, 65, has combined her international mindset with her desire to help others. But it’s her personal skills that have kept the all-volunteer organization growing, says founding board member Janis Karn.

“She’s relentless, and she’s a masterful networker,” Karn says. “She’s just so gregarious and outgoing, she’s not afraid to ask people for help. It’s amazing how many people have said yes.”

Love of travel

Rothney grew up in Florida, where she caught the travel bug at an early age, thanks in part to trips she took as a child to Bermuda and Mexico with her parents. In junior high school, she decorated her room with travel posters. In high school, she saved her babysitting money to buy a plane ticket to Europe.

She got to Europe the summer after her freshman year at Washington University in St. Louis, and soon followed up with trips to Israel and Greece. After college, she was off to India before moving to Raleigh to seek a teaching job.

She taught middle school history in Wake County schools for 11 years, and left that job to start her own business making cufflinks with postage stamps and other images from across the world.

That venture lasted more than 20 years; her creations were sold at Nordstrom much of that time. But lately, Rothney has closed that business to focus on her nonprofit.

In the meantime, she continued traveling. She took her first trip to Africa in 2000, and has since returned seven times with her husband, Scott, to take in the star-filled skies and the thrill of seeing lions and giraffes in their natural habitat.

“While we’re able to go to remote places, we want to see as much of the natural world as possible,” she says.

Luggage allowance

In 2002, when she was planning her second trip to Africa, she realized then that she could bring 100 pounds of luggage on the overseas flight. But she could take only a fraction of that to the site where she was camping – or “glamping,” as she calls it, sleeping in well-equipped tents on safari.

Having struggled to supply her own classroom in Wendell, she thought she might use that weight allotment on school supplies.

“I thought if I had to beg for supplies in Raleigh, what was it like in Botswana?” she says.

So she asked her travel agent about bringing some supplies, and the company agreed to get them from the airport to a local school.

When Rothney visited the school, she saw children kicking around a ball made of rags stuffed into a plastic bag. She had brought soccer balls, and watched them play.

She also brought rulers, which brought an emotional response from the school principal.

“I saw actual tears coming down her face,” Rothney says. “There wasn’t a ruler in the school.”

She passed out olive shells she had collected to all of the children, and taught them how to play Connect Four.

A few years later, she did another safari with friends and persuaded them to bring supplies, too. The next trip, she had her own driver and guide, so they could deliver the supplies themselves.

Medical supplies

Before that trip, she inquired about the needs at a school clinic, and found they had neither a stethoscope nor a blood pressure cuff. So she collected some donated medical supplies and brought them over.

In all, she and her friends brought more than 1,000 pounds of supplies on eight trips.

What she calls her “aha” moment came when she asked a travel agent whether his other clients donate supplies. He said they just didn’t think about it, and Rothney figured she could change that.

Bring five pounds

Rothney jokes that her nonprofit runs on cookies – the homemade treats she serves warm to thank the volunteers who, among other things, created and maintain the massive website that links travelers with local schools and clinics.

By late 2009, she had assembled her volunteer board, including a lawyer, an accountant and a web designer.

The first trip, to Ecuador, took place in January 2010. That year, 450 travelers took supplies to 29 countries.

Her own trips had involved intense planning to make sure she brought the most-needed supplies and got them to their destinations.

The pitch is to bring five pounds of supplies on vacation, and leave it with a participating hotel or resort, which gets the supplies to local schools and clinics. Lists on her website detail what supplies are needed, and where they can be left, at any given destination.

Resorts and travel agents enjoy the publicity garnered by participating and being featured on the Pack for a Purpose website. At first, she employed interns to find destinations for the supplies and local people who could deliver them from tourist areas.

The group has been mentioned in Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, airline magazines and several travel websites. As the nonprofit has gotten more attention, companies, schools and clinics have started contacting her directly.

She hopes that with enough attention, her nonprofit will become a first stop for every traveler, no matter where they’re going, including locations within the United States.

After all, she says, nearly every community has needs. And it’s only polite for a visitor to bring a gift.

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