Volunteering Vacations Provide Purpose

Posted on 09/16/20 by Larry Lipman

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How about this for your (post-pandemic) vacation: Plunk down a lot of money, fly to a third-world country and spend two weeks doing menial tasks among people who speak little, if any, English.

It may be the most rewarding and meaningful experience of your life.

Ken Budd has learned the value of combining volunteering with tourism, helping people from New Orleans to Costa Rica to China to Ecuador to Kenya to the West Bank of Israel. A former executive editor for AARP The Magazine, Budd is the author of The Voluntourist; a Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem.

Budd shared his insights about the personal rewards of voluntourism as one of the featured speakers recently for the Third Annual Boomers and Beyond Academy sponsored by AARP Virginia and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University.

Being a voluntourist is different from being a tourist, Budd explained.  While tourists live in a bubble passing through an area – stopping to visit key sites and snap some photos—voluntourists actually live in the community and “immerse themselves in an area in a way you don’t as a tourist.”

Although Budd began his volunteering activities in his 40s, he said many voluntourists are well into their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Types of activities could vary from teaching English, to building walls, scrubbing floors, taking environmental measurements and working in orphanages. Volunteer tours typically last at least two weeks, but may extend for many months. The volunteers pay for their transportation, lodging and food. Sometimes they live in hotels; sometimes in more Spartan quarters.

The jobs may be menial and short-term, but Budd said there is value in offering yourself as a volunteer.

“Short-term volunteers are like links in a chain,” he explained showing a photo of him holding a young child in Kenya. Before he came, some other volunteer held the child; after he left another volunteer would hold the child. “Small gestures taken together can become a large gesture.”

Budd’s venture into voluntourism began a few months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Budd’s father had recently died at age 65 from a heart attack. In the days that followed, Budd heard from many of his father’s acquaintances who praised how he had touched their lives. Budd began wondering what mark he would leave. He volunteered to help in the post-Katrina cleanup and rebuilding effort.

At first the destruction seemed so overwhelming that his efforts would barely make a dent. But scraping paint off a wall in a house that had been heavily damaged brought an epiphany: “If I don’t scrape this paint, you can’t paint the house, and if you can’t paint the house, you can’t finish the house, and if you can’t finish the house, the family can’t move back in.” 

Years later, Budd returned to New Orleans and saw the restored house he had worked on. He was told that virtually every house in the area had been touched by a volunteer during the rebuilding.

Budd offered four lessons he learned from being a voluntourist:

  • There is power in small gestures and there is power in small acts of kindness. Sometimes, just the presence of a foreign volunteer in a community can make a difference, Budd said, because it enhances the value of the volunteer effort.
  • Feeling stupid is good. While no one wants to feel stupid, Budd said allowing yourself to learn about the culture and ways of a local community can teach you something new and provide insights about yourself.
  • Life is a precious gift. While that may sound obvious, Budd noted that after his father’s sudden death he became more attuned to the struggles of others and witnessed first-hand the struggles many people make to survive in desperately poor communities.
  • Success comes from helping others succeed. Budd noted that he met some amazing people who had overcome incredible adversity to provide help in local communities. For example, in China, he worked with special needs children at a center founded by a woman with an autistic child in a society that preferred to look the other way; in Kenya he volunteered at a center for orphan children founded by a woman who started with virtually no resources.

There are numerous organizations that sponsor voluntourism opportunities. There are also books that provide insights into voluntourism.  In addition to his book, Budd recommended Travel with Purpose; a Field Guide to Voluntourism, by Jeff Blumenfeld.

Budd urged potential voluntourists to do as much research as possible before undertaking a trip. Look up the organization; learn whether your activities would enhance or make the local activists dependent, ask how your money would be used and try to talk to a voluntourist who had done the same trip as you plan to do.

Among the organizations Budd recommended for volunteering in the United States are: VolunteerMatch.org; Serve.gov; RedCross.org; and CreatetheGood.org, sponsored by AARP.  In Northern Virginia, Budd recommended FACETS, an organization founded in 1988 to help people living in poverty in Fairfax County.

Among the organizations Budd recommended for voluntourism activities abroad are: VolunteerForever.com; GoOverseas.com; GoAbroad.com and PeaceCorps.gov.

People interested in more of Budd’s ideas on voluntourism can sign up for his newsletter—650000hours.com—which is roughly how many hours a typical person lives. He can also be reached on Facebook at Facebook.com/AuthorKenBudd.

The Boomers and Beyond Academy continues September 26 at 9 a.m. with two additional free lectures. Martha Brettschneider, Founder of Damselwings, LLC, will present mindful tools to connect with purpose, build resilience and live with intention. Her lecture will be followed by Steve Mutty, CEO of Volunteer Fairfax, who will explain why volunteering is not only good for your community but good for your own health.

The lectures are free but registration is required. Register here.

This story is provided by AARP Virginia. Visit the AARP Virginia page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.

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You can find CDC’s latest coronavirus information at cdc.gov/coronavirus; AARP information and resources are at aarp.org/coronavirus. En español, visite aarp.org/elcoronavirus.

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