'Voluntourist': Help or hindrance?

I have to admit to being skeptical about the trend of American tourists paying thousands of dollars to fly to far-away countries to do volunteer work.

It seems like a mighty expensive and inefficient way to get a feel-good high. Couldn't that money be put to better use buying supplies or hiring locals in their home countries to carry out the work?

Author Ken Budd tackles the pros and cons of the "voluntourism" trend head-on with his new book, "The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem."

After the sudden death of his father from a heart attack, Budd is determined to make a difference, not just in America, but around the world.

First off, he signs up for a gig rebuilding hurricane-ravaged homes in New Orleans. During the pre-trip skills assessment, Budd — an author and editor — acknowledges that he has no construction experience.

Luckily, most organizations seem accustomed to the fact that many volunteers have few practical skills. Budd is given mainly grunt-work tasks, such as scraping off old paint, although at one point he is teamed up with experienced professionals and gets to install flooring.

He views the destruction caused by the hurricane, but also sees the joy in residents' faces as volunteers help repair the damage.

The trip lights a spark in Budd, and he persuades his wife, a nurse practitioner, to travel with him to Costa Rica to teach English to the children of Nicaraguan refugees.

With no experience teaching English as a second language, they are left to their own devices with rooms full of children and no teachers present in the classrooms to help them. They seek advice, they improvise, and sometimes they feel their efforts are worthwhile.

The program director tells Budd and his wife that no matter whether English sticks in the children's minds, the couple have made the kids feel important and valued. As Nicaraguan refugees, they are often looked down upon by the Costa Ricans, who complain about the immigrants in their country.

Budd often thinks about the contradictions of volunteering abroad.

As he puts it, he flew in a carbon-spewing jetliner to South America to research climate change impacts.

He's helping others while neglecting his own loved ones — missing a graduation, Mother's Day, a funeral, his wife's birthday and a Christmas. He comes dangerously close to cheating on his wife with a French volunteer.

At the same time, there are small but eye-opening moments that help him understand different perspectives.

In Kenya, Budd learns that some child psychology researchers don't believe foreigners should spend time as voluntourists with orphans who have lost their parents to AIDS. The children form bonds with the adults, only to have the adults disappear after two weeks, further damaging the kids' abilities to form attachments, the researchers say.

Yet the tiny handful of Kenyan "house mothers" who take care of dozens of infants, kids and teens in an orphanage are filled with gratitude as Budd and his wife scrub floors, hold the hands of babies learning to walk, cuddle attention-starved toddlers, wash windows and make a giant spaghetti dinner.

"The Voluntourist" doesn't provide easy answers about the best way to help others, either in America or abroad. But it does offer an honest, unvarnished look at what people can expect if they ever decide to become voluntourists themselves.

The book is available in the new-books section near the checkout counter of the Ashland library.

Vickie Aldous is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. She can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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