Welcome back to our new interview series, The Ripple Effect. The Ripple Effect explores the emotional impact of volunteer travel and its lasting effect on people’s lives. Today we’re speaking with Ken Budd, a prolific volunteer traveler and writer committed to changing lives. His memoir, The Voluntourist, is “part love story, part travel tale; a book about losing your father and finding your destiny.” After his first volunteering trip to New Orleans, Ken volunteered in four countries in nine months for his memoir. Ken has written for The Washington Post, Smithsonian, Stuff, McSweeney’s, Might, Worldview, and many more publications. Here is part one of our interview. (Please visit us tomorrow for part two.)
This week I’ve been exploring the interesting intersections between tourism and learning. In some cases, like Return to Freedom (the American wild horse sanctuary) and the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute, volunteer tourists learn directly through work. They help take care of animals, help with research, work on the farm, and help conceive of new sustainable projects. In other cases, like the Texas A&M Volunteer Entomology Training Program, volunteers learn in the traditional way, in the classroom. At EcoTeach, the subject of today’s article, volunteer tourists learn in a combination of ways—through wilderness expeditions (a classroom in the forest), conservation work, cultural exchange, and guided exploration.
Nature is where my heart is. I’ve been a wildlife lover since I saw my first butterfly fluttering above a dandelion. The movement of the wings, the way it flitted from one side of the flower to the other, and then the way it rested, folding its wings to sit perched atop a blade of grass… I was captivated by how unique and special it was, how beautiful and free and unlike me. And yet, it was alive! There are so many creatures in our world, of all shapes and sizes. Over millions of years they have evolved to perfectly inhabit their environments—from grassy hills to the treetops, from the driest desert to the deep sea. Today, all of our world’s creatures are in danger and the danger comes from all sides: pollution, over-fishing, development, deforestation, poaching, and climate change.
In a poll conducted by Condé Nast Traveler and MSNBC, 14% of Americans have taken a volunteer vacation, but 55% indicated they would like to participate. Of those who have gone on volunteer trips, 95% reported that they are likely to do it again. That’s quite a return! But I wonder about that 55%. Who are they? Are they busy working people or high school kids? Are they grandparents, afraid of the rigors of volunteering? As a voluntour organization, how can you motivate that 55% to take the plunge—to reach that decision-making moment when an ephemeral dream becomes a solid reality?
Students are some of our most important volunteers. These are young people, excited to learn and to grow, often having their very first experiences overseas. College is a time of transformation, when children become adults. It’s a time when we learn about ourselves: how we learn, who we want to be, and what matters most. When I think back to what I was like before college, I remember feeling scared, like I didn’t have the stuff to be bold and outgoing. I relied heavily on my parents. I wanted desperately to be independent but didn’t know what that meant, or how to achieve it. College helped me to mature, but travel was what really challenged me to think deeply about life choices and to ask myself a very important question: how was I going to save the world?