A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Lending a Hand While Racking Up Miles

By Jason Jacks on May 1, 2012

Ken Budd

Stunned by his father’s sudden death in 2005, Ken Budd, BA English ’88 and MA English ’97, was consoled by the stories that soon poured in about his father—such as how the retired executive encouraged employees to excel and helped secure generous severance packages for those who lost their jobs, never forgetting that he himself had grown up poor.

Budd, who was 39 at the time, thought to himself, “I don’t think I’ve changed anyone’s life.”

So in need of a purpose, Budd began a journey of volunteerism that would take him to around the globe, culminating in his first book, an emotional and personal travelogue called The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem (HarperCollins).

The book, which is scheduled for release on May 8, 2012, is not your run-of-the-mill eat-and-stay-here travel narrative. It’s a story about personal connections, coming to terms with grief, and finding meaning in one’s life.

Not long after the death of his father, Budd was dealt a second blow: realization that he would likely never be a father himself. Around this same time and while still feeling the pangs of these two life-changing events, Budd received an e-mail seeking people to travel to New Orleans to aid in the post-Katrina clean up. Perfect timing, as Budd, executive editor of AARP The Magazine, signed on and spent a week in the hurricane-ravaged city, scraping paint and hauling trash.

“While there, you start thinking that your problems are pretty minor compared with such a massive tragedy,” he remembers of his first voluntourism trip.

Budd’s travels next took him to Costa Rica, where he spent two weeks teaching English at an elementary school. Subsequent trips landed him—sometimes with someone else, sometimes alone—in China, where he worked with special needs children; Ecuador, where he assisted on a climate change project; the West Bank, where he volunteered on a series of projects, including building rock walls at an olive farm; and Kenya, where he volunteered at an orphanage.

“I wanted to fling myself around to places I had never seen,” he says, “and take myself out of my comfort zone.”

In China, he was initially thrown by the language barrier and the demands of a special needs school. “It was a culture shock overload,” he says. In Kenya, he was touched by the head of the orphanage, a woman who dedicated her life to helping impoverished children, some of whom were abandoned by their mothers. And while volunteering at a Palestinian refugee camp, he and other volunteers would occasionally venture into Bethlehem. On their last night, they sang popular songs from their respective countries at a Christian-run restaurant.

“A volunteer from Philly wanted an American song and pulled up the lyrics to ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ on her phone,” he remembers. “Suddenly, the place was rocking with the ‘ohhhhhh-ohhh’ chorus.”

According to Budd, it’s hard to have experiences such as these from behind a tour bus window. Voluntourism, he says, puts travelers at ground level, eating, working, and living with those who call the country home. “You’re doing things you wouldn’t otherwise do as a tourist,” he explains. “You’re in the streets, and you are seeing a place in a very different way.”

Although Budd has not scheduled any future volunteer trips, he plans to continue his charitable ways by donating the proceeds from the sale of The Voluntourist to those projects he writes about in the book.

“At this point,” he says, “I’m more interested in helping the places I’ve already visited.”

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