The Game Plan

The Voluntourist

Posted by Carten Cordell / Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

Burke writer’s travel memoir details the human experience, the worth of one’s life and the importance of perspective.


By Lindsey Leake

“Sometimes you need distance from your life to realize how much you cherish your life.”

Writer and editor Ken Budd resides in Burke with his wife. (Courtesy of Ken Budd)

At some point during the course of your life (if you haven’t already), you’ll likely, and sometimes often, question the meaning of it all. Not just generic, existentialist standards like “What is the meaning of life?” and “Why are we here on Earth?”, but perhaps more personal ponderings like “What is my life’s purpose?”, “Does my life carry real meaning?” and “What legacy and impact will I leave behind?” 

Goals and dreams frequently arise from these questions, sound desires and aspirations to do something that will make our time on this planet count. While there is something to be said for dreaming big and well-meaning goals are not without merit, the gap between dreaming and doing is larger than we like to think. How often do we fully channel the willpower and effort necessary to achieve our greatest ambitions? When the opportunity for you to make an impact, big or small, comes around, will you take it? Will you create your own opportunities for success or let your initial eagerness to aim high fade?

Burke resident Ken Budd didn’t wait around for the journey of a lifetime—both a mental and physical journey at that—to happen to him; he took matters into his own hands. When his father passed away suddenly in 2005, then 39-year-old Budd was struck with not only grief, but also questions about the purpose of his own life. He wondered how he could possibly live up to his father—who had positively impacted many lives—when it seemed he would never become a father himself. With his wife by his side, Budd turned that wonder into action by embarking on a variety of short-term volunteer trips, discovering purpose in the simple act of helping others. 

Ken Budd with his father. (Courtesy of Ken Budd)

After visiting New Orleans, Costa Rica, China, Ecuador, Palestine and Kenya, Budd, a writer and editor whose credits include The Washington Post, Washingtoninan, Modern Humorist, Smithsonian, Opium, McSweeney’s, Stuff and Worldview, translated his global experience into a travel memoir entitled “The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem.” Below, Budd details the events that sparked the book (published in early May) and his plans to continue living a life that matters.

What exactly is a voluntourist? 

“The term comes from ‘voluntourism.’ It’s basically a short-term volunteer travel experience: anywhere from two weeks to three months. Most of us can’t take two years to join the Peace Corps, so it’s a way to use your vacation time to volunteer abroad or here at home. Typically you work all day and then your evenings and weekends are free. In Kenya, for example, my wife and I worked at a children’s home but went on a weekend safari in Tsavo National Park. So it’s a way to do a tiny bit of good in the world and experience a place much more deeply than you would as a tourist. In China, my friend and I would walk each day to the special needs school where we worked, and we were such oddities that people would take our photos. We never saw other Westerners—until they drove by one day in a tour bus. That’s the beauty of these trips: they get you off the bus and onto the streets, working with local people, eating local foods and learning local customs.”

Was there anything other than your father’s sudden death that sparked your desire to become a voluntourist?

“It was several things. I was approaching 40, which is always a good time for a midlife crisis. My wife and I weren’t going to have kids and I was struggling with that. So my dad’s death ripped the lid off of some issues that were already bubbling. Then, after he died, we started receiving letters from his coworkers and friends, and so many of them said … Your father changed my life. I read these letters and thought: what people will say when I’m gone?”

Budd with young students in Costa Rica. (Photo by Karen Budd)

Your book begins, “I want to live a life that matters … for too long now–long before I began my six-country do-gooder quest–I’ve felt that my life doesn’t matter.” What made you feel that way? What did you hope to achieve throughout your travels? 

“I work for a magazine and for five years I edited a bitsy front-of-the-book section. All the stories were about 100 words long. And I remember thinking: this is symbolic of where I’m at. Everything I do is small. So all of these things, both personal and professional, were swirling around in my head, and as I say in the book, I needed to tackle my grief—my grief at losing my father, my grief at not being a father. The volunteer trips were an unplanned therapy. I never said, ‘Hmmm, my life lacks meaning: I think I’ll travel the world spreading happy fairy dust on every place I visit.’ They just kind of happened. It was only when I went to China that I said, OK—I want to volunteer abroad, I want to help others in some small way and I want to go to places and do things that intimidate me. A fellow volunteer in Costa Rica told me, ‘You only learn about yourself when you’re outside your comfort zone.’ I embraced that idea. And that’s the great thing about travel: it pulls you from what’s familiar. Sometimes you need distance from your life to realize how much you cherish your life.”

Budd's voluntourism travels began with a trip to post-Katrina New Orleans. (Courtesy of Ken Budd)

“The Voluntourist” outlines your travels in New Orleans, Costa Rica, China, Ecuador, Palestine and Kenya. Did you have a favorite among those locations, or did your experience in one of those places shape your journey to self-discovery more so than the others? 

“Everywhere I went, as soon as I arrived, I’d think … This was a huge mistake. Traveling abroad can be disorienting, but when you’re working and you’re supposed to be helpful, that disorientation is more extreme. I felt particularly discombobulated in China. I was working at a special needs school, I have no experience with that and I don’t speak Chinese. Not a good combination. The first morning I was in a room packed with kids, it was loud, I couldn’t understand anything—I remember writing on a pad, ‘Culture shock overload.’ But I grew to love the kids and the teachers. That’s one of the big benefits of these trips: I’ve made lifelong friendships with people around the world, from other volunteers to people in the communities where I worked. And that happened everywhere I went.”

Would you ever consider embarking on another global voluntourism trip? 

“I’m sure my wife and I will do it again at some point: I’d love to do another scientific trip, such as the climate change project where I worked in the Andes mountains. But right now I’m more focused on helping the places where I already worked, so whatever money I get from the book is going back to the organizations and places where I volunteered. Back in May, money from The Voluntourist paid annual school fees for nine of the kids at the children’s home where my wife and I worked in Kenya. We’re working with Global Volunteers, the organization for my China trip, to create an operating fund for the special needs school where I worked. We’re also working with Cross-Cultural Solutions, my volunteer organization in Costa Rica, to create the Franco Lalama scholarship: Mr. Lalama was killed on 9/11 leading the evacuation of engineering offices in One World Trade Center, and he’s stepfather of a fellow volunteer from Costa Rica. So far we’ve given away about $15,000 from my book advance, and that’s been really gratifying. Though I have to say, racking up a lot of expenses and giving away your earnings is nota good business model.”

Budd stands out in China. (Courtesy of Ken Budd)

What do you hope readers will take away from your story?

“I hope readers will see that you shouldn’t be afraid to challenge yourself; to put yourself in unfamiliar situations and open yourself to new perspectives. Whenever I was volunteering, I never felt like a do-gooder. I felt like an idiot, because I had no clue what I was doing. And those experiences changed my view of the world. One night in the Andes when the sky was clear, you could see the Milky Way and the Galilean moons of Jupiter, and I realized just how lucky we are to be here, to have this incredibly rare opportunity to experience life. In Kenya, over 40 orphans lived at the children’s home: some had lost parents to HIV, others were abandoned. In the mornings, I’d frequently hold a two-year-old named Elijah. He was the product of incest, so his birth brought shame to his family, and he spent the first year of his life in isolation—no nurturing, no cuddling, no love. Whenever I held Elijah, and saw his big eyes, it’d strike me just how much every life matters. My father once told me that success comes from helping others succeed, and I think that’s how we live a good life.”

What advice can you give to readers who’d like to take voluntourism trips of their own? For those who might not have the means to do so globally, how might one go about taking a local, regional or national voluntourism trip? 

“I started with a reference book called Volunteer Vacations, which lists about 150 organizations. You can also do searches on sites like and All of these include not just international opportunities, but domestic ones, too. Once I was interested in an organization, I’d usually contact a former volunteer and ask questions about the experience: was the work you did helpful? Were the organizations creating partnerships or dependency? You’ll frequently fill out a skills questionnaire or write essays about why you want to volunteer, and in Kenya, since we were working with children, my wife and I submitted to a background check. Organizations that don’t take those types of steps—that seem more interested in your credit card than your qualifications—should set off warning bells. I’ve compiled a list of voluntourism resources on my website:”

"The Voluntourist" was published on May 8, 2012. (Courtesy of HarperCollins)

How long have you lived in Northern Virginia? What is your favorite part about living in NoVA?

“I’m a lifelong Northern Virginian. My parents met at Wakefield High School in Arlington. I’ve traveled a lot, but I have roots here, and those roots pop up in the book: there’s a scene that takes place with my buddies at Fat Tuesday’s in Fairfax. I earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at George Mason, and I had some wonderful professors who really influenced me. My wife and I live about 10 minutes from campus, and I like the perks of being near a university: the Center for the Arts, Fall for the Book and particularly Mason basketball. I’m a longtime season-ticket holder—I went to my first game back in the old field house—and my friends and I make the road trip to Richmond each year for the CAA tournament. It’s the highlight of our winter social season.” 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

“People take these volunteer trips thinking they’ll do some specific job, but the cultural interactions that occur are equally important, if not more so. Those interactions destroy stereotypes. In the West Bank, we had about 40 volunteers, and only five or six were American: the rest were European. So this amazing daily dialogue occurred between people from close to 15 different countries. One night a group of us spent an evening in the home of a local family who lived in a Palestinian refugee camp on the edge of Bethlehem. It was two Americans, two Spaniards and several Palestinians. One of the most amazing nights of my life. Just talking with people over tea changes the way we see each other. That, to me, was more important than the work we did, though the mere act of volunteering is important as well. We were cleaning Manger Street in Bethlehem in the days before Christmas, and the people were so pleased that we were there and that we cared. In Costa Rica, our volunteer leader said most Costa Ricans think Americans are lazy, because that’s the image they get from TV. When you’re working with people, and sweating with people, it changes their perceptions.”

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