Welcome back to our new interview series, The Ripple Effect. The Ripple Effect explores the emotional impact of volunteer travel and its lasting effect on people’s lives. Today we’re speaking with Ken Budd, a prolific volunteer traveler and writer committed to changing lives. His memoir, The Voluntourist, is “part love story, part travel tale; a book about losing your father and finding your destiny.” After his first volunteering trip to New Orleans, Ken volunteered in four countries in nine months for his memoir. Ken has written for The Washington Post, Smithsonian, Stuff, McSweeney’s, Might, Worldview, and many more publications. Here is part one of our interview. (Please visit us tomorrow for part two.)
How did you first become interested in international volunteering?
It happened by accident. My father died suddenly from a heart attack, my wife and I weren’t going to have kids, and I started seriously questioning who I was and what I was doing. I felt my life lacked purpose. And then an opportunity arose, quite unexpectedly, to volunteer in New Orleans nine months after Hurricane Katrina. That experience whet my appetite for more, so my wife and I taught English at an elementary school in Costa Rica. But once we came home, I figured that was the end: that I’d done my We Are The World bit and it was time to be normal. Eventually I realized that these two trips were the start of the journey, not the journey itself. And that led to do more volunteer work abroad.
What was your first trip and how did you choose where to go and what to do?
It all started in New Orleans. The nonprofit I work for donated money to Rebuilding Together, which was rebuilding homes after the flood. An e-mail arrived asking if anyone wanted to volunteer, and without really thinking, I signed up. Rebuilding Together was taking unskilled volunteers and I said, “This is perfect because I have no skills whatsoever.” But a few years passed after my New Orleans trip before I really immersed myself in the volunteer experience. A fellow volunteer in Costa Rica told me that you only learn about yourself when you’re outside your comfort zone. That stuck with me, and I tried to embrace that idea. I wanted to go places, and do work, that intimidated me. I wanted to go places where I’d never been. So I went to China and worked at a special needs school. I went to Ecuador in a remote part of the Andes mountains for a climate change research project. I went to Palestine because that really intimidated me. And then my wife and I worked at a children’s home in Kenya. I wanted broad experiences, and I wanted to do good in the world, even if it was just a tiny bit of good.
Could you elaborate on some of the ways that first experience affected you?
Everywhere I went, from the first trip to the last, I questioned not just my effectiveness, but the effectiveness of short-term volunteers. I was skeptical as soon as I arrived in New Orleans, because you get there, and you’re holding your little paintbrush, and you see the scale of what happened, and you feel inadequate. But I came to believe that small gestures have impact. Just being in the city, and seeing what happened, and spending money in restaurants—that was important on some micro level. There’s a story I tell in the book where I had an epiphany about small gestures. We were working at a house, and I was scraping a shed in the backyard, and I thought, okay—if I don’t scrape the shed, you can’t paint it. And if you can’t paint it, you can’t finish. And if you can’t finish, the owners can’t move back in, and Rebuilding Together can’t move to a new project. So I came to see that small gestures have meaning, and that small gestures, taken together, can become large gestures.
In what ways did volunteering help you cope with the death of your father?
I didn’t realize it at the time, but these trips were a kind of occupational therapy. I wasn’t just trying to accept his sudden death; I was struggling to live up to his life. This was a guy who touched a lot of people by encouraging them, and being positive, and putting them in a position to succeed. And success, he once told me, comes from helping others succeed. He was a great role model, but that can also be hard to live up to. As I say in the book, I often felt like the poor imitation—the light beer to his stout ale. But more than anything, my travels and my experiences gave me a true appreciation for the preciousness of life, as did the speed of his death. I wanted to live a life that matters, but I came to see how much every life matters. And I came to see how lucky I am. Sometimes you have to distance yourself from your life to realize how much you cherish your life.
Please come visit us tomorrow for part two of our interview with Ken Budd.