You can pack your values into a corner of your carryon

Service has been a hot topic around the Times office this past week. Times Media was recruiting staff volunteers for its Make a Difference Day project on Saturday (we were collecting items for New Beginnings in St. Cloud; they’d still appreciate any help you care to give).

And we were talking about how the Times might better help connect our busy readers to service opportunities where they can make a real difference quickly.

As travelers, we often find ourselves in corners of the world where, outside the resort walls or away from the main attraction, the people who populate our vacation paradise live on the edge. Veteran travelers can become accustomed to that; new travelers can be thrown to discover that, for instance, the blue seas, white sands and posh spas of Cancun come with a side order of abject poverty just a few miles away.

New traveler or old, only the most callous stops noticing the privilege gap.

The most typical response is to just keep on traveling, maybe tip a little more generously, haggle a little less. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Traveling is arguably the very best way to help improve the prospects of people who live in impoverished regions.

But if you’re moved to do more, but aren’t prepared to dedicate your whole trip to a mission or voluntourism project, there are other options.

Among the most intriguing is Pack For a Purpose, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that helps world travelers use the leftover corners of their luggage to change lives.

It’s a simple concept: A traveler decides where they’re going, clicks that region on and finds a list of hotels and other travel businesses near their destination. Those businesses serve as drop-off points for donated goods to programs that help meet that region’s unique needs.

Children in Nicaragua show off their new toothbrushes, thanks to a traveler with some extra luggage space.

Children in Nicaragua show off their new toothbrushes, thanks to a traveler with some extra luggage space.

The traveler checks a list of items in demand, decides which to fulfill, packs those supplies

into their extra luggage space and drops them off at the business during their trip. The business then gets them to the partner charity.

What can you take along? The list of needs from Pack For a Purpose programs ranges from

children’s multivitamins, chalk and pencils to soccer balls, suture thread, forceps and bras. Medical devices, tools and school supplies are needed almost everywhere.

The program is intended to be painless for travelers. The recommended load is 5 pounds, but travelers can take more or less.

The list of participating hotels is long — and potentially financially intimidating. (Ritz Carlton, anyone?) But there’s no requirement to patronize any of the Pack For a Purpose partners. They’re simply convenient dropoff points for travelers in a given region.

You can learn more about the program on the Pack For a Purpose web page (above), on Twitter (@packforapurpose) and on Facebook.

And if you’re moved to explore the intersection of travel, community action and service, I encourage you to find a copy of travel expert Rick Steves’ 2009 book “Travel as a Political Act.” Best known as the pied piper of low-cost European travel for Middle America, the guide book guru’s true calling shines through in 209 pages of thought about why — and how — travel can improve the global state for everyone.

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Lisa Schwarz

About Lisa Schwarz

By day, I'm a St. Cloud Times editor guiding coverage of politics, government, public safety and business beats. By night, I'm leading the cubicle jailbreak as the Times Traveler. Follow me on Twitter at and on Facebook at
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