On International Volunteer Day, the PFA spoke to Sheffield Wednesday’s Will Vaulks about the community service that has accompanied his footballing career.
Vaulks is a seasoned EFL player who joined the Owls in 2022 having clocked over 100 appearances for Championship sides Cardiff City and Rotherham United. The midfielder also won the PFA’s Player in the Community award for the 2021/22 season in recognition of his work with Cardiff City’s Community Foundation.
To start off, do you remember when you first became interested in community service and volunteering?
“It probably started when I was a teenager. My mum was actually the one who embedded it in me. She used to volunteer for a local women’s charity, supporting single mums who were looking after children on their own or handling complex domestic issues.
“So that was my first introduction to volunteering, just watching my mum do it as I grew up and learning about some of the tough situations people were faced with.”
Vaulks has been an ambassador at the South Yorkshire-based Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice since 2018, an organisation caring for children and young adults with life-shortening and life-threatening conditions. He first visited the charity in 2016 and has since become a regular face at the Hospice.
“When I arrived at Rotherham United, I applied to be a volunteer at Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice – it was local to me, and I’d visited it before. I became a volunteer and spent every Thursday there for about two years before I moved to Cardiff.
“It was there that I really got the bug for it.”
Has playing football helped drive this passion?
“Honestly – I think football opens so many doors. We’re in a very privileged position as footballers to be wanted, and the opportunities are there to make a difference.
“But it doesn’t necessarily need to be too attached to football. A lot of the time, I’m just volunteering as a normal person – it’s nice. I’m there as a young lad who wants to help out. But, of course, clubs can absolutely help make those connections and spread awareness of these causes.”
Football can be all-consuming at times. Does this work give you another focus, in a sense, something off the pitch to throw yourself into?
“I think so – but it’s just in me, I enjoy doing it.
“I do often come home in a far more reflective mood, more aware of other people’s troubles. And that’s important. But it’s not about me. I’m volunteering because I want to raise awareness of these issues and – really – if you volunteered for any other reason, you wouldn’t last.”
Earlier this year, Vaulks supported the Baton of Hope suicide prevention initiative, an Olympic-style relay from Glasgow to London. Vaulks began the Sheffield leg of the relay, carrying the baton from Hillsborough Stadium to Hillsborough Park.
“I felt a real personal attachment to the Baton of Hope campaign as I lost both of my grandads to suicide. I was there to champion the cause and the charity asked if I would carry it first in Sheffield to bring more attention to the cause.
“It was a really emotional day. That one was really important – I never want it to be about me, but in this instance, I knew it would help raise awareness so I was happy to be involved. The message needs to be shared as much as possible about men’s suicide and suicide in general.”
Does your work have a positive domino effect on other players? Are they interested in what you get up to outside of football?
“I think so – honestly, I’m a bit of a joker in the dressing room, but when the lads see me doing the serious stuff, quite often I end up having one-to-one chats with a couple of them because they didn’t realise I had that side of me.”
“In my personal experience, I can say without question that footballers do so much work in the community. They really do so much. They’re donating without people knowing, they help young kids who come to games… this work does go on behind the scenes and it’s great to see.”
What’s your advice for players thinking about getting a bit more involved in community work?
“Look, it’s not for everyone! You have to have an openness to you. If you’re going to do it, go into it fully.
“Naturally when you’re a footballer, everything is about football – but you can be a person outside of football too.
“It was big for me to make the leap. There are times I thought ‘oh no I’m going to have to commit to these hours… I don’t want to let them down… what if my training hours change…?’
“Actually, charities need help and they will find ways to make it work. Go for it – jump in. And if you can’t do it and it doesn’t work then what have you lost?
“I think you realise you’ve got a bit more time than you think – all it needs is a little bit here and there.”
To learn about the work of the PFA’s Community team, click here.