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Ken Budd Shares His Volunteer Wisdom: Live Better, Live for Others

What will our legacies be? Cheese-It crumbs under the couch cushions and a TIVO filled with reruns of Seinfield? We hope not, but truthfully, most people are so worn down from their jobs that it’s easy to sink into a leather chair and scroll aimlessly through the channels. And yet, that question, “How will I be remembered?” always lingers somewhere in the crevices of our brains, a little whisper saying, “Come on, you only live once.”

Ken Budd Interview The Voluntourist Finding peace through others

Most people want to make a difference, but they simply have no idea where to start. With a refreshing wit and a humble voice, Ken Budd’s first memoir, “The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem,” asks these same loitering questions. The book points out that you can start volunteering anywhere on the map, there’s no need to over analyze yourself, because who you are (or think you are) always changes, there’s always more to discover - thank goodness.

Recently the Go Overseas staff was lucky enough to conduct a short interview with this critically acclaimed writer (Ken's work has appeared in AARP, McSweeney's, Smithsonian, The Washington Post, and The Modern Humorist. He's currently the Executive Editor at AARP). We found this self-proclaimed introvert friendly and surprisingly talkative. Ken has a certain air of goofiness. He never takes himself too seriously. He is a realist, but has a bigger heart then he’ll openly admit. The author, hiding between two covers, spills 200 pages of his confessions and hilarious musings.

In “The Voluntourist,” Ken asks the biggest question of all: How do I live a life that matters?

At no point does Ken pretend to know the answers to the great questions of the universe, but with a self-deprecating silliness and a refreshing blend of honesty and humor, he touches on the basic anxieties and vulnerabilities that render us human.

Ken, struggling to overcome the loss of his father, a man he idolized, was flash-frozen by the surreal quickness of loss. Yet, underneath this icy layer, there was a lake churning, a deep will for reinvention, for self-improvement.

As the book opens, Ken, in his hyper self-awareness, realizes that by simply saying, “I want to live a life that matters,” he may appear grossly self-important. Addressing the reader he says, “You may be tempted to make a snide comment about me. Hell, I’m tempted to make a snide comment myself.” Refusing arrogance and pity, Ken explores the chaotic whirlwind of awkward clumsiness that can accompany the volunteering experience.

Culture Shock or “What am I Doing Here?!”

We have grandiose dreams about volunteering. We think about heroically pulling a community out of poverty in a single week, or saving a woman from drowning in an epic flood, but reality is far less intense than our imaginations. Volunteering is more like being thrown into a play when you don’t know your lines. Time to improvise! We asked Ken if he overcame his culture shock as he traveled from country to country. “No, I never did.” he said. “It always felt a little weird.”

Volunteering is disorienting. Even if you volunteer in just one country for a full year, you may never feel totally in control. Learning how to think on your feet and accepting the unexpected are important lessons for the volunteer. But, adjusting to a new environment takes time, and for Ken, adjustment was a slow process. “It felt like there was a boxer hitting me in every which way. I was still standing, but never had a strong footing… I was always skeptical about my skills. What could I contribute?”

The Little Things Add Up

While teaching in China, Ken worked with amazing people, but even so, it was a challenging experience at times. Ken told us, “Not knowing the language, it was frustrating trying to communicate. But, I found that it was the little things that helped the most, like taking rice upstairs to the women without being asked.” As a volunteer, you can only do so much, and realistically (even if you’re a teacher) you’ll probably end up learning more than you’re able to teach.

I was always skeptical of my skills and the impact I could have, but I learned that just the act of being there was truly important. Having volunteers around somehow broke the routine. People seemed to laugh more. The teachers were less overwhelmed.

Ken explained, “having volunteers around changed the collective image of Americans. Some people only know about Americans from what they see on TV. When travelling abroad, Americans are often perceived as lazy.” The idea of the “American work ethic” doesn’t transfer very well over the TV. Imagine if the only things you knew about America were Michael Jackson and Coca-Cola. Caffeine and wild dancing… that sounds like a perfect combination!

The most important things we experience are often the smallest. It’s hard to see these moments when they happen and to give them the appreciation they deserve. The joy of reading “The Voluntourist” is that we witness Ken as he learns to appreciate these fleeting moments, and in doing so, learns to appreciate the smallest parts of himself. “In China, there was a boy who was really hyperactive. I think he just needed someone to go for a walk with him. I guess I helped out just by being calm,” said Ken. Suddenly, in a chaotic moment, Ken’s quietness went from being a perceived weakness to a personal strength.

This is not a Midlife Crisis: Reasons for Volunteering

There are many reasons for volunteering abroad. Some people want to learn about a new culture, a new trade, a new language. Others may be looking for a challenge. While these experiences can pad your resume or make for a powerful cover letter, these benefits come as afterthoughts for most volunteers. Regardless of the benefits one receives from volunteering abroad, there seems to be one overarching reason for volunteering: people want to give themselves to a cause that is greater than themselves. Working for a website that stores hundreds of volunteer reviews and interviews, we quickly realized that self-sacrifice knows no race, creed, or age limit.

Typically, volunteers are between the ages of 18-30. As Ken said, “about 80% of the volunteers I worked with in Costa Rica were of college age or younger.” Are these college students having their quarter life crises? It’s doubtful that endangered sea turtles and orphaned children care about how old you are. The search for meaning doesn’t begin and end within some perfectly defined age spectrum. This is not a midlife crisis!

Take Terri Wingham for example, a personal friend of the Go Overseas staff and an amazing cancer survivor. When Terri was recovering from her battle with cancer, she volunteered in South Africa. This experience helped her recovery in a tremendous way; she is now developing an organization called A Fresh Chapter to help others who suffered from cancer. Her organization matches cancer survivors with volunteer organizations to help ease their post-recovery transition. Continuing her mission, Terri is laying the groundwork with some phenomenal volunteer providers. Supported by @ANewCLOUD and the newly launched CLOUDCircles program. Terri wishes to spur innovation by supporting user built fundraising communities, creating an Internet built around people, for people. Together they are determined to help survivors get the support they need to start A Fresh Chapter in their lives. Continuing his humanitarian efforts, Ken is also working to raise money and provide funding for volunteer organizations.

Exemplifying the spirit of recovery, Ken and Terri are overwhelmed by a sense of duty, a need to tell how astonishingly diverse and sacred a single life can be. By attempting selflessness, they ended up uncovering their self-confidence. Fighting grief with generosity, they’ve determined that we live better when we live for others—even if it’s only two weeks at a time.

Living a Life that Matters

When you volunteer abroad, you have to give up any illusions that you’re going to save the world. Remember, you’re one person and can only do so much. While you may come to doubt your ability to truly make a difference in such a short period of time, your skills will be of greater help than you may currently know. So cause a few smiles here and there, teach a few sentences that stick in your students’ minds, and hug a child who has lost his parents. All of these experiences, as brief as they may seem, are better than lying awake in bed wondering, “What if...”

So how do we “live a life that matters?” To quote Kurt Vonnegut (one of Ken’s favorite authors), “Some people say, ‘to be [have meaning] is to do.’ Others say ‘to do is to be.’ Frank Sinatra sang, ‘do be do be do.’” Your voice will crack, or maybe you’re tone deaf, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem!

Connect with Ken and Terri

All photos courtesy of Ken Budd and may not be used without permission.
Photo of Nick Wright

Nicholas is an avid reader, obsessed with poetry and literature. He attended the University of San Francisco and still lives in the Inner Richmond. Next Fall he'll be attending Columbia University to earn his Masters degree in writing.