News: Traveling Mercies

Charity might begin at home, but then it takes flight

Aug 6, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

When traveling overseas for vacation or business, airline passengers can help orphanages and other charities by carrying a suitcase, according to Jim Berns.

How much does a good deed weigh? Up to 70 pounds, according to Jim Berns, founder of Travel Donations, a charity that uses airline regulations and travelers' goodwill to help charities and orphanages around the world.

Airlines allow each international traveler to take checked pieces of luggage weighing up to 70 pounds. Most travelers only take one suitcase, according to Berns. The objective of Travel Donations is to have travelers take second suitcases filled with items that charities need.

Participants deliver the suitcases to a charity, or at least to the city the charity is in.

Several of Berns' friends have adopted children in other countries. He noticed that when they went to pick up their children, they packed extra suitcases full of clothes and toys for the children left in the orphanage.

"I realized if people adopting children could do this, ordinary travelers could also pack an extra suitcase," Berns says.

Thus, the birth of Travel Donations.

The program began in March.

The charities are chosen either through research by Travel Donations or by travelers themselves. In general, Travel Donations tries to select charities that are not well connected and that have little outside support.

Frances Wainwright, treasurer of Travel Donations, found her own charities to deliver to when she took a trip to Mombay, formerly known as Bombay, India. She initially got involved in Travel Donations by helping Berns with paperwork, and that increased her interest in what he was doing.

"It changed the whole tone of my vacation," Wainwright says.

However, she is one of the few delivering a suitcase on a personal vacation. Groups going on mission trips make most deliveries. Berns says he hopes to get more individuals to deliver aid suitcases through Travel Donations.

Berns recently returned from a trip to Honduras with students from McAuley and LaSalle high schools. On that trip, 40 suitcases were delivered to charities. Citizens for Community Involvement (CCI), a group from the University of Cincinnati, delivered suitcases to Reynosa, Mexico, on a mission trip there.

"It was wonderful," says Sandra Sherman, a CCI member who went on the trip. "It gave us an opportunity to bring more than just time and energy."

So far, Travel Donations has sent suitcases to charities in 13 countries.

Travel Donations normally buys the suitcases from the St. Vincent DePaul Society for $1 each. If a traveler has a spare suitcase, it can be used. The suitcase, however, is part of the package given to the charity.

"When a kid moves (out of an orphanage), it's really sad when their whole life is packed into a garbage bag," Berns says.

Giving children suitcases for their journey makes them feel better about the move, he says.

Inside each suitcase are donations of toys, clothes, medicine, school supplies, household items, shoes and other items that a charity or orphanage needs. The items are collected by Travel Donations or by the traveler.

The Great Rivers Council of the Girl Scouts has recommended that troop leaders have their members fill suitcases for Travel Donations.

"We're not having trouble getting things to take, but we do need more travelers," Berns says.

For the past 15 years Berns has been the shop manager of the college lab at the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. He unsuccessfully ran nine times for public office as a Libertarian, including campaigns for Cincinnati City Council and Congress. He says he's finished running for office, but he still believes there is politics beyond the Democratic and Republican parties.

When Berns travels, he often packs all of his personal items into a carry-on bag so he can take two suitcases to give to a charity. He tries to take four trips a year. For many people, even those on leisure trips, delivering the suitcases can be the highlight of a trip, he says.

In late August, Berns is going to Peru to start a Ronald McDonald House in Lima.

Travel Donations is a nonprofit group that is trying to get tax-exempt status.

To participate in Travel Donations or for more information, call 513-708-0815 or visit