Ken Budd faced a crisis of meaning when his father suddenly died of a heart attack.
"It's not even dying that bothers me," Budd wrote in his memoir. "It's dying without making a difference in the world. Without doing a damn thing that matters."
Budd faced his crisis in a series of volunteer trips around the world, and wrote about them in "The Voluntourist: A Six Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem."
On Wednesday, Budd will relive his adventures when he speaks as part of the Fall for the Book Festival. His presentation begins at 7:30 p.m. at Shirlington Library, 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington.
The Robinson High School graduate's odyssey began with an email seeking Katrina relief volunteers in New Orleans. What followed were several two-week trips teaching English at a rural school in Costa Rica; helping at a special needs school in China; studying climate change in Ecuador; assisting refugees in the West Bank; and caring for orphans in Kenya.
Budd's book is not a self-centered pat-on-his-own-back. He is funny in his honesty, and readers can relate to that age-old question about the purpose of life, and the sense of loss when dreams must be laid aside instead of lived.
"I needed an outlet for wasted energies," wrote Budd. "I needed a way to tackle my grief; my grief at losing my father, my grief at not being a father."
During each two-week volunteer trip, Budd confronted his feelings of inadequacy. In New Orleans, for example, he was asked what skills he had to contribute to the rebuilding effort. "No one said anything about needing skills," wrote Budd. The group leader responded, "That's okay. We have plenty of work for unskilled people."
Budd said the beginning of each trip felt like a huge mistake. He questioned the value of his contributions, which seemed so minor. He returned home exhausted. "But then I realized I'd had a pretty amazing experience," he said. "The smaller things in life seemed smaller in the grand scheme of things."
The local author wrote his book on the VRE, as he commuted from Burke Centre to his job as executive editor at AARP in D.C., and at home late into the night. On Saturdays, he wrote at Caribou Coffee in the Kings Park Shopping Center.
"I was a complete novice," said Budd about the writing of his first book. "I started the project by reading a book about how to write a book proposal," he said. "Then I pitched my idea right as the economy fell."
After New Orleans, Budd's idea was to make additional volunteer trips to continue his search for purpose, and to fund the trips by writing about them. "William Morrow [an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers] took a leap of faith that something else really was going to happen," said Budd.
"I came out of the experience with an appreciation for the people in my life," said Budd. "I see myself more as a person of the world, making lasting connections and lifelong friendships."
For those who want a similar experience, but don't have the resources, Budd suggests volunteering close to home.
Budd volunteered with six organizations:
- Cross-Cultural Solutions
- Earthwatch Institute
- Global Volunteers
- Rebuilding Together (New Orleans operation)
- Travellers Worldwide
- Volunteers for Peace
Additional Patch articles about the 2012 Fall for the Book Festival:
And last year's appearance by the master of horror, Stephen King: