“Well, this was a huge mistake.”
Those were the words that popped into Ken Budd’s mind when he arrived in Xi’an, China. He was there to spend two weeks volunteering at the La La Shou Special Education Center—only he didn’t speak Chinese, and had never worked with special needs children.
It was the third of six trips the writer had taken that fall under the umbrella of “voluntourism”—travel that replaces beach lounging and margarita drinking with hard work and a deeper understanding of the community you’re visiting.
In The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem (released May 8), Budd recounts his experiences in China and the other countries he traveled to in a quest to help others and heal himself.
One trip involved daily 15-mile treks through the rain forest carrying conservation research equipment on his back, while on another he taught English to third graders. Accommodations varied widely, too. In Costa Rica, he slept in bunk beds. In Palestine, he slept on the floor. And in Kiembeni, Kenya, he crashed in a modest family home that belonged to a local volunteer coordinator.
But as he went from China to Kenya, New Orleans to Bethlehem, his fellow volunteers could all be characterized by “a genuine desire to do good,” writes Budd. And many, like the writer, were on journeys of self-reflection.
“For people going through a transition, this kind of immersive experience can be extremely helpful and transformative,” writes Budd, whose decision to embark on the volunteer trips came soon after his father’s passing in 2005, an event that “ripped the lid off of many things” in his life.
“I was approaching 40, which is always a good time to start thinking about your mid-life crisis,” he jokes.
“Jonathan, another volunteer I met in Costa Rica, told me that you don’t really know yourself until you’ve been forced out of your comfort zone,” Budd writes.
Budd donated his book advance and future royalties to the eight volunteer organizations he worked with. The effort includes investing in a trust for Calvary Zion, a home for the orphans of HIV victims in Kenya, and creating a fund to help La La Shou, which caters to over 60 children in a country that “still sees special needs children as something to be tucked away rather than helped,” writes Budd.
For prospective volunteers questioning what practical skills they might have to offer on a voluntourism trip, Budd notes: “There’s power in small acts of kindness. Often, it’s just being there that helps.”
That’s how Budd got over his trepidation in China, where, he writes, “having the big dorky American friend to practice English with, to laugh with, was what really made the difference.”
Learn more about where funds from The Voluntourist are going on Ken Budd’s website. Learn more about volunteer opportunities with Cross-Cultural Solutions, Global Volunteers, Earthwatch, Rebuilding Together, Travellers Worldwide, and Volunteers for Peace. Photo by Karen J. Budd.