NJT full suitcases

Take a Suitcase, Change a Life

by Kyle Eaton

As a family we’ve enjoyed traveling for the last decade or so, and we’ve usually picked destinations in developing countries. During these trips, we’ve met some amazing local people who don’t have the basic necessities that we have in abundance here in the U.S. We’ve always wanted to find a way to meaningfully help the local people, but we never knew how.

In November of 2017 we came across an online article about a Canadian nonprofit called Not Just Tourists (NJT) that has an interesting approach. NJT takes donated medical supplies, puts them in donated suitcases, and sends them with travellers going to developing countries. Once there, the traveler drops the suitcase off at a clinic that provides medical care for the locals. We knew almost immediately that this was the kind of giving back we had been looking for.

At first we were just planning on taking a suitcase or two on our next vacation, until we learned that there were no chapters of Not Just Tourists in the United States. My parents are retired, and we like to volunteer, so we decided to open our own chapter.

We’ve received an amazing level of support from the Canadian chapters. They already have the infrastructure up and running, and they are always there to answer our questions. Each Chapter has the choice of being as large or as small as they choose. There are large chapters such as Toronto and Ottawa, and then there is a chapter that is run by a small group of college students. The other thing that appealed to us is that there is no fund-raising involved. Goods, suitcases and time are donated out of a wish to make the world a better place. It’s not about money or tax write offs.

surgical tools donated by (University of California, Irvine) UCI
UCI Donated Medical Supplies

If you want to deliver a suitcase, here’s how it works. After contacting us, travellers are provided with a suitcase full of medical supplies (about 35 lbs) and a list of clinics in the destination country. After delivering the suitcase and taking a photo for social media, they go on with their trip. We are located in southern California, but we have had people from all over the U.S. ask for a suitcase. We have been lucky to find a partner that will ship suitcases at a low cost, so we can send each suitcase across country for just under $25.

The cool thing about the process is that the 30 minute detour in your trip is providing invaluable medical supplies to the underfunded clinic or hospital, which in turn helps the locals. It’s also a way to help you to connect at a deeper level with the people of the country you’re visiting. In the short time we’ve been doing this, we’ve already had repeat travellers.

What’s mind-boggling about Not Just Tourists is the source of our medical supplies. Due to stringent American and Canadian regulations, all of the medical supplies that enter any patient’s room cannot be used for another patient, meaning that the perfectly good and often unopened medical supplies are thrown in the trash. This goes for all of the supplies in the room, from the box of gloves to the expensive specialised supplies, even when there’s no infectious disease present. The upside is that hospitals in the U.S. and Canada can donate those supplies to groups like ours. We currently get almost all of our donated medical supplies from UCI Medical Center and bring in upwards of 100 lbs every week. To think we’re only collecting from a small portion of what that one hospital generates!

For a sense of the scale of the problem, in 2012 the National Academy of Medicine estimated the U.S. healthcare system throws away $765 billion of perfectly good medical supplies every year, more than the entire budget of the Defense Department. Our goal is to divert as many of these supplies as possible away from landfills.

Since starting our chapter in early 2018, we have sent over 2,900 lbs of supplies to 16 countries. All with 100% volunteer labor and no fund-raising. Our chapter currently operates out of our home, but most of the larger chapters partner with churches or synagogues who provide space for storage. They hold packing parties, encouraging volunteers to help pack the suitcases. Currently we are doing it ourselves with the help of a few friends, but as we continue to grow we will eventually need to get others involved.

njt-iporanga-clinic-medical-supplies-delivery-group-photo-with-supplies.jpg
NJT Iporanga Clinic Medical Supplies Delivery Group

If you have read this far then hopefully you might be willing to help. Here are some ways you can. First off, we need travellers. Although tens of thousands of Americans travel to countries that could benefit from a suitcase of medical supplies, virtually no one knows we exist. Even if you aren’t traveling this year but know someone who is, please help us spread the word. Second, we also supply medical and church missions. In the past year we have sent hundreds of pounds of supplies to Mexico, Kenya, Ghana, and Ethiopia. However, most mission groups aren’t aware that Not Just Tourists exists. We would love to give them free medical supplies to assist them with their mission. Third, you could help us immensely by sharing this article on your own social media. Facebook, for example, can be a powerful tool in spreading information like this. Finally, our ultimate goal is to inspire others to open chapters across the U.S.

Editors note: Contact oc@notjusttourists.com if you are interested in taking a suitcase to change a life!