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Our time here is short. The average human life lasts only 650,000 hours.

It was a lesson I learned in 2005, when my father collapsed from a heart attack. After his sudden death, friends wrote letters saying how he’d supported them, made them better people, and I thought…

What will friends say when I’m gone? What am I doing that matters?

And then I volunteered in six countries around the world. That journey changed my view of life.

I learned that there’s power in small gestures. In many Third World countries, parents will send their kids to school – rather than to work – simply because foreigners are there.

Sometimes you make a difference just by showing up.

I learned that leaving your comfort zone can help others. In China, I worked at a special needs school with a friend. I was often overwhelmed: I don’t speak Chinese and I have no experience with special needs kids. But for the teachers, who work difficult jobs, we were a welcome break in their tiring routines. After we left, one teacher said, “We seem to laugh more when volunteers are here.”

I learned that success comes from helping others succeed. My father told me this before he died, but I saw the truth of it in Kenya, when my wife and I volunteered at a children’s home. The home receives no government support, yet survives through the love and dedication of its “mothers,” and from the generosity of patrons worldwide. I’m not religious, but the home’s founder, Jane Karigo, believes that God sends her these people; that some people are vessels. And she told us… “You are vessels.”

I took that seriously. So whatever money I earn from my book is going to the places where I volunteered. It’s not much, but it helps: our donation covered annual school fees for nine of the home’s kids, including a boy named Elijah.

The product of incest, Elijah’s birth had brought shame to his family. He spent year one of his life in isolation – no nurturing, no love. Elijah was two when we worked at the home, and whenever I held him, I realized that asking if my life mattered was misguided — because clearly every life matters.

And so I believe in the power of small gestures.

And I believe that small gestures, taken together, can become large gestures.

And I believe we make the most of our 650,000 hours in the simplest of ways: by helping others succeed.

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Determined to live a life that matters, Ken Budd volunteered around the world, from Asia to Africa and the Middle East, a story he tells in his new memoir, The Voluntourist—A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem.

Ken was questioning the direction of his life—his 40th birthday was looming, he and his wife were childless—when his father died suddenly from a heart attack. And then, unexpectedly, he volunteered in New Orleans nine months after Hurricane Katrina. Three months later he taught English at a rural elementary school in Costa Rica. After that, Ken worked at a special needs school in China, collected data for climate change researchers in the remote Andes mountains of Ecuador, assisted refugees in Palestine, and cared for orphans at a children’s home in Kenya.

Publishers Weekly calls The Voluntourist a “sincere and subtly written memoir,” and Library Journal writes: “This is an extremely funny book… One of the best-written travel memoirs this reviewer has read in a long time.” Booklist declares it a “unique travel memoir” that will inspire readers to volunteer abroad.

Ken has appeared on a variety of TV and radio programs, including NBC’s Today show, CBS’s The Early Show, ABC News Now, CNBC’s Power Lunch, and Martha Stewart Living Radio. His writing credits include Smithsonian, The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, McSweeney’s, and Stuff. He is the executive editor of AARP The Magazine. Ken is donating his earnings from The Voluntourist to the organizations and places where he volunteered. He and his wife live in Burke, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C.

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