I never really wanted to volunteer. Not that I told anyone that, of course. What I actually wanted was to be able to say I volunteered -- to be the kind of person who volunteered. I wanted, in short, to impress people. I figured if I volunteered just once, I could re-tell that story over and over, preferably to women in bars.
That's how I ended up in a small village south of Kathmandu, on the other side of the blue metal gate that opened to the Little Princes Children's Home. I had just begun a year-long round-the-world trip, and I had decided to spend the first three months of it volunteering in Nepal.
I had never worked with children before, but I imagined that the 18 children inside would be sitting quietly on the floor, feeling sad because they were orphans. Instead, I opened the gate and I was immediately tackled by a gang of excited children.
I could not have known it then, but that was the beginning of a new life for me. I would end up not just caring for those 18 children, but rescuing more, searching for them when they were stolen by child traffickers, and trekking through the mountains to find their families after we discovered the truth: they weren't orphans after all, but trafficked children.
My friends were perhaps more shocked than me to discover my transformation. "When did that happen?" they would ask me.
I realized that the transformation actually began, not in Nepal, but when I first bought my plane ticket to Kathmandu. At that moment, something in my life had to change. I was on my way to a place that I'd only seen on T.V., to live with a house full of orphans in one of the poorest countries in the world in the middle of a civil war. You cannot live like that for any length of time and come out the same person.
On one inauspicious day at the Little Princes Home, I bought the children toy cars, only to have them break almost immediately; then I watched as the children happily returned to making their own toys out of trash, out of sticks and bottles and old rubber bands. If they tore a plastic grocery bag, they carefully repaired it with tape and continued to reuse the bag. They neatly folded their single set of clothing and washed it by hand in the stream each week.
I didn't have to study the culture -- I learned about it through sheer immersion.
And that, to me, is the joy of volunteering. It requires so little in the way of prerequisite. It doesn't require a particular passion, or a special skill. I had neither of those. It requires only that we make the decision to show up, that we open our minds and hearts to the people we are trying to help, and that we do as we are asked once we arrive.
Volunteering is the single best way to see how the rest of the world lives. It isn't a question of how the other half lives -- that's a misnomer; it's more like how the other 90 percent of the population lives. We need to see that up close to understand our world, to inform us, to make us better leaders and better colleagues and better neighbors.
This doesn't mean you have to devote your life to that cause. You don't. Experiencing it is the important thing.
But be warned: it might be the first step on what becomes a long path. It might take you in directions you never thought you would ever go. It did for me, with those kids in Nepal. And now -- six years after my trip to Nepal on a lark, six years after my friends proclaimed me to be the most reluctant volunteer to ever put on a backpack -- I can't imagine how I ever lived without those kids.
My book, Little Princes, is more than just an adventure story, more than just the story of these amazing children who endured so much to get home. It's the story of how that transformation took place in me, from that reluctant volunteer to dedicating my life to rescuing trafficked children. I wanted to share it because I suspect there are a lot of folks out there just like me. And there are even more children out there in need -- children who are desperate for us to take that first step.