The Voluntourist by Ken Budd
Ken Budd’s father passed away a few years ago, triggering Ken’s “aha!” moment and setting into motion somewhat of a mid-life crisis. Ken was only 39 at the time, but his father, Bob, was such an influential and inspiring role model it forced Ken to take a good hard look at his own life and ultimately led him to make some major life-changing decisions.
To all outsiders, the author and his wife, Julie, had a seemingly charmed life: they were childhood sweethearts who married young and enjoyed successful careers. Nobody except Julie was aware that inside, Ken was mired in grief. Not only was he mourning the loss of his father, but he was quietly reeling from the constant pain of not being a father himself. Turns out, Ken always wanted to be a father; however Julie didn’t want kids. Like the clichéd elephant in the room, this issue has always been the one sore spot in the marriage. Finally, after feeling unable to contain his sorrow any longer, Ken makes a radical decision: sign up for volunteer work in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans.
Thus starts his journey to six different countries to work as a volunteer (think Peace Corps, but the trips are through private agencies). At first Ken feels awkward and unsure of himself. After all, he’s a writer. What does he know about building homes or laying tile? But as he quickly finds out, the importance of being there is not about how skilled you are; it’s about your personal dedication to want to make a difference in somebody’s life. The book takes the reader from Katrina to Costa Rica, where Julie joins him, and then on to China, Ecuador, Palestine, and finally ending up in Kenya, with Julie again.
Each volunteer assignment is a fascinating look into the lives of the people who live there. So not only do you read about Ken’s personal feelings and insights about his experiences, but you learn a lot about other cultures and how they live. He does a superb job of intermingling his travels with back-story about his childhood and related experiences with his father. As Ken travels from country to country you come away with the sense that the natives are not the only ones benefitting from his solicitude. We also see Ken evolve from a grieving soul to a person becoming able to process the losses in his life and make peace with them. By the end of the story, Ken realizes that true success comes from helping others succeed.
This book was absorbing and fascinating and extremely well-written. I think anyone who enjoys reading memoirs will love it. I also endorse this title as a great choice for book clubs and reading circles; no doubt the conversations that ensue will be both thought-provoking and passionate.
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