An Excerpt from Ken Budd’s The Voluntourist
Writer Ken Budd takes a journey of self-discovery through voluntourism experiences in Kenya, New Orleans and Ecuador.
After his father died unexpectedly, writer Ken Budd found himself taking a hard look at his own life and personal contributions, and began to wonder: What would he leave behind? How could he live a life that matters? His quest to find purpose began when he signed up for a week-long stint rebuilding homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It was the start of a journey that would take him to volunteer in China, Ecuador, Palestine and Kenya. His memoir, The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem (William Morrow), chronicles his voluntourism experiences and his journey of self-discovery.
“When I think of Bob, as I do frequently these days, I recall him as a great influence on my life,” wrote Will, the HR director where Dad worked.
“I don’t think I would be the person that I am today without knowing him,” said Steve, another of Dad’s employees.
“I may dream to play golf with him at ano-yo [heaven] some day,” wrote Kyoto Tanaka, one of Dad’s first Japanese bosses and his close friend. “His score will be 95 and my score will be 96.”
By saying Dad will have the better score, Mr. Tanaka said his friend was the better man.
I read these letters and wondered: What will people say when I’m gone? What if my own life ends in an instant? What have I accomplished? These feelings weren’t new. Dad’s death simply ignited them, exposed them, ripped them from my secret shell. I’ve long wanted children, and in the weeks after the funeral I made my most emphatic case to Julie. It’s not too late, I said. We’ll conceive. We’ll adopt. We’ll build a child from a kit. We’re cheating ourselves out of the central experience of life.
. . .
A few months later the e-mail arrived. The subject: “Katrina Relief Volunteer Opportunities.” My employer was working with Rebuilding Together, an organization that repairs homes owned by low-income older Americans. Rebuilding Together was managing projects in New Orleans and throughout Louisiana, and ten to fifteen slots were available for volunteers to do hot, hard work for one week in the Big Easy, nine months after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the city.
“Employee volunteers will work under hardship conditions,” the announcement said. “Accommodations will be provided in a tent city and/or on cots in facilities such as church basements. Three simple meals will be provided daily, and dietary restrictions cannot be met. Employee volunteers must be in good health and capable of hard physical work.”
Without discussing it with Julie—without even knowing what the job would be—I signed up.
. . .
When Julie decorates our home for Christmas she places a red wooden toy soldier on the narrow mantle above the fireplace. The soldier has a happy Playskool expression, black grenadier hat, swinging arms. Dad brought it home from Denmark. He worked there for a few weeks after I was born, sent by his employer to repair check-processing machinery for banks. I’m embarrassed to say we never discussed what he did there, or what he experienced. Sometimes I wonder: why didn’t we talk about this? You think you know the people you love until they’re gone, and then you realize the questions you never asked, the questions that seem less important when they’re here.