From Vagabond to Volunteer to VAF



Ashley Bulgarelli

When I first arrived in Ghana I was 21 years young, naive and wanted to change the world. My previous two and a half years consisted of 10 months of uni and 20 months of backpacking and work and travel. I surfed for 6 months in the icy waters of west coast Canada; worked on the highest chairlift in a Japanese ski resort; spent 6 nights on a Russian boat traveling through the heart of Siberia; and much more in between.

I had not a single clue about Ghana yet I knew that I wanted to go there. My best 'changing the world' qualification was the program fee I was able to pay. My role: football coach. Because Ghana didn't have enough football coaches...but how was I to know? This position didn't work out as planned, neither did the organisation I was volunteering with, so four months later I was 'unattached' in Ghana and doing my own work. Despite not doing much during that initial period, it was the most eye-opening four months of my life. I was a member of the community; I was loved and I loved back; I gave and received in equal parts.

When those four months came to an end I knew that I couldn't just say "it's-been-nice-to-know-you-but-I'm-pissing-off-now-and-paying-for-a-flight-which-could-buy-2,283-bowls-of-fufu-and-returning-to-a-land-of-fat-white-people-looking-at-their-phones-and-not-talking-to-other-people-and-I'll-probably-never-see-you-again. Peace."

No. I decided that I couldn't leave these wonderful people behind and did what any normal 21 year old would do - started a non-profit organisation. VAF is a result of the love and affection shown to me by the wonderful friends I made, the children I nurtured, and the families that took me as their own. I think I wanted to know what it really meant to live.

Fast forward two years later and I was leaving Ghana having achieved none of what I planned to do, but everything that I could do. We sponsored some students through high school; we reached out to thousands of people through our diabetes outreaches; we built stuff and donated stuff. Cool. But what the hell happened to the party loving 21 year old who once shotted a bottle of $2 vodka on the back of a boat with a Russian bloke nicknamed "Skullcrusher"? Volunteering is what happened.

In my time in Ghana I realised that you didn't need to have a PHD in Saving The World to make a difference. You and I each have a specific set of skills and unique experiences that, if applied correctly, can outweigh any sort of theoretical knowledge. How many 18 year olds graduate school and know that their purpose in life is to work in development? None. I turned 18 on a beach in Fiji and while I didn't recognize it at the time, I'd say that is where the first seeds of philanthropy were sown - seeing the culture; seeing the poverty; feeling the warmth.

Travelling and volunteering unleashes each individual's hidden skills. People say that volunteering can't be about the volunteer, it's about the work you do. To that I ask the question: have you volunteered? Yes volunteering is about the work you do, but there has to be something inside of you that makes you tick and makes you want to go to these developing countries and be a part of something new. The personal growth achieved through volunteering is unquantifiable. I can say that without a doubt I would not be where I am today in general life terms if I had not volunteered. As my good friend, and ex-VAF volunteer Lindsay Denny wrote in her article How Much Good to Volunteers Abroad Do?, volunteering can change people:

The indirect consequences on the volunteers should not be dismissed when discussing how much good volunteers do. The experience of volunteering abroad inevitably has an impact upon the volunteer. And these impacts can be lasting, changing the way in which the individual sees the world s/he lives in and his/her path in life.

Compassion for those unlike you, the ability to connect, the patience to listen. These are attributes that often cannot be taught but must be experienced. My first time volunteering abroad I was able to contribute little to the target community. But I soaked it all in. The experience led me to a career in international development, doing good in various other communities. Thus the ripple effect, spreading out from that initial experience. A career in development may not be in your future, but learning that there's not just one way to live and discovering true benevolence will benefit you both personally and professionally.


I now work for an international aid agency and got the job because my experience was recognized, not my qualifications (or lack thereof). I am a testament to the power of volunteering.

Ashley Bulgarelli