Conor Grennan never wanted to volunteer abroad. He wanted to impress people.
"I wanted to tell people I wanted to volunteer, but I didn't actually want to volunteer," Grennan said to a gymnasium full of students at Edison High School in Huntington Beach last week.
But he did it anyway. In 2004, a 29-year-old Grennan traveled across the world for a two-month stint as a volunteer at a rural Nepalese orphanage.
While his trip began as a way to show off in front of a woman he had a "mega-crush" on, it soon became something else.
"After a while, I really fell in love with these kids and grew to love the life of the village," he said. "I liked them so much that after two months of being there, I went back a year later."
As he recounts in his 2010 book, "Little Princes," Grennan then spent the next several years not only working with Nepalese orphans, but also embarking on the heroic — and perilous — mission of reuniting trafficked children with their families.
FOR THE RECORD
March 24, 10:50 a.m.: An earlier version of this post said the title of Conor Grennan’s book was “Little Princess.” The correct title is “Little Princes.”
This year, hundreds of Huntington Beach high schoolers shared in Grennan's adventure as they read "Little Princes," this year's selection by the local nonprofit HB Reads.
Since 2008, HB Reads has encouraged reading by choosing one book per year for something of a citywide book club. The group also buys 40 books for each of the eight high schools in the district and hosts an author talk at one of them.
Previous HB Reads selections, which are required to have a theme of diversity, include "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time" and "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan."
Grennan's talk Friday detailed his time in Nepal, the complex political climate that resulted in child trafficking, and the somewhat accidental way he searched for — and ultimately found — these lost kids. Along the way, he founded Next Generation Nepal, an organization dedicated to reconnecting trafficked children with their families.
Grennan, who now lives in Connecticut with his wife and two children and serves as dean of MBA students at New York University Stern School of Business, also encouraged students to volunteer more — even if their motivation is initially selfish, like his once was.
"People will constantly tell you that you should be volunteering for the right reasons. Don't listen to them because it doesn't make any sense," he said, noting that he got a "hot wife" out of the process.
"Think about why you should do it for yourself, how it's going to make you richer or more attractive to the opposite sex or the same sex. Richer and better off — all these things will come to you if you volunteer.
"If you go out there and you bring a kid back to their family, do you think that parent — they thought their child was dead — do you think that parent thinks, 'Oh, I hope he was doing it for the right reason.' He doesn't care!"
Grennan added a caveat.
"The amazing alchemy that happens is that once you start doing it, your motivation happens to change," he said. "Then you really do care about the orphans. But don't think about that for now."
Fred Provencher, president of HB Reads, said the group tries to select books that high school students will be able to connect with, and that "Little Princes" stood out for this reason.
"This was a book where the author was fairly young and did something that everyone would like to do," he said.
Provencher said he enjoys hosting author talks for high school students, because "it's fun to see these kids read and be exposed to books."
And he knows students appreciate it too.
"One of the high school students sitting behind me said, 'Oh, I thought this was going to be boring,'" he recalled, laughing. "They weren't saying it to me, obviously, but they were probably thinking, 'Oh geez, we're going to another assembly,' and they end up with this author who really speaks to them."
Nubia Velasco, a 17-year-old who attends Marina High and is co-president of the school's book club, said she could "relate personally" to Grennan's book because she is also planning a trip abroad where she will work with children at an orphanage.
"I listened to everything he said, I read the book, and now I'm going to apply it to my trip," she said. "I especially like that he said we need to let go of our culture, because I know that's something I need to do to totally immerse myself."
Tristan Tellier, a 15-year-old at Marina High School and also co-president of the book club, said "Little Princes" has motivated him to follow in Grennan's footsteps.
"It makes me want to travel more," he said. "It makes me want to volunteer more."