Welcome to part two of our interview with Ken Budd, a prolific volunteer traveler and writer committed to changing lives, including his own.
What has been your favorite experience and why?
The most gratifying thing for me has been the friendships I’ve made. I’ve stayed in touch with people as much as six years after my trips, and I’ve been exposed to different viewpoints and different perspectives and people who make me laugh. You embark on these trips and think you’ll work at a school or do some specific job, but the cultural interactions are just as important, if not more important. It changes the way people see each other, and I saw that again and again, whether I was in China or Kenya or Palestine. And meeting people like Zhang Tao, the woman who formed the special needs school where I worked, or Jane Karigo, who founded the children’s home where my wife and I volunteered… these are extraordinary people who have done amazing work with few resources other than grit and determination and love. I’m so grateful for that, and I never would have met them if I hadn’t been volunteering.
What are some challenges you have faced along the way?
Whenever I started a volunteer gig, I’d think… I’ve made a huge, huge mistake. I always felt a bit overwhelmed, particularly in China. I have no experience with special needs kids and I don’t speak Chinese. Double whammy. My first morning at the school, I had no idea what was going on, it was loud, I couldn’t understand anything, I couldn’t read anything, the room was packed with kids—I pulled a pad from my pocket and wrote “culture shock overload.” It’s always intimidating to travel somewhere when you don’t speak the language, but when you don’t speak the language and you’re supposed to be helpful, it’s even more intense. I often say it’d be like going your first day of a new job and discovering that everyone speaks Klingon.
Obviously, you have been deeply affected by volunteering. Do you find yourself evangelizing volunteering to the people in your life? Are they receptive?
Truthfully, I try not to evangelize. I don’t think these trips are for everyone. And I don’t want to be preachy. Someone recently told me that one thing he really liked about the book is that I never say, “You should do this too.” The takeaway for me was not that everyone should rush out and volunteer overseas. It’s that we don’t get much time here, and we should embrace this incredibly rare opportunity to experience life, and that we live a good life by being a good friend, a good neighbor, a good brother, a good spouse. That we find success from helping others succeed, as my father said. But I certainly learned those lessons because I was traveling, and specifically because I was volunteering, and I’ll always be grateful for that.
What is the ripple effect of volunteer travel on your life?
My volunteer experiences changed me. The small things seem smaller to me now. Whenever I feel stressed at work, or annoyed by some guy in traffic, I think about a shantytown in Costa Rica where we played with the kids. I think about the children at the home where we worked in Kenya. And I feel connected to people around the U.S. and around the world in a way that never would’ve had happened without these trips. I have friends from the Costa Rica trip that I visit in the U.K. I recently had dinner with one of my roommates from Ecuador. A young Palestinian friend I met in the West Bank is in the U.S. for a student exchange program; I got to see him recently when he was briefly in D.C. These friendships are the ripple effect. Because my Palestinian friends now see Americans differently. And because I see them differently. And we both tell others about our experiences and what we learned.