18 Ways to Volunteer and Give Back in San Diego
From helping unhoused neighbors and at-risk youth to clothing drives, and more, there are plenty of ways to make a difference in America’s Finest City.
The holiday season is upon us, and with it comes that sense of goodwill and generosity that many of us feel towards our fellow humans. Hold on to that feeling all year by giving your time, money, or both to those who are struggling with food insecurity, poverty, illness, and those who need someone to talk to or just a kind shoulder to lean on. You can also make a difference in keeping our beautiful beaches and green spaces clean and enjoyable for generations to come.
Here in San Diego, sites like VolunteerMatch and HandsOn San Diego help you find volunteer opportunities that are the best fit for you. In that spirit, we’ve gathered 18 local nonprofits and organizations that are eager for volunteers this holiday season and all year long. And, remember, if you can’t commit your time, each of the sites below has a “Donate” button to make it easier than ever to help someone in need.
Birthdays and cake go hand-in-hand and every child should know the feeling of having a cake, cookies, cupcakes, or other sweet treats made just for them on their special day. Founder Libby Gruender began Cake4Kids in 2010 after being inspired by a news story about a young foster child’s emotional reaction to receiving her very first birthday cake. Now, Cake4Kids partners with over 140 agencies that support at-risk children and young adults (ages 1-24) who are in foster care, group homes, homeless shelters, transitional and low-income housing, and domestic violence and human trafficking shelters. Volunteers purchase ingredients, bake and decorate the goodies in their own homes and deliver them to an assigned agency, which ensures that it reaches the birthday child. To volunteer to make cakes, you should be a reasonably decent baker and decorator and over 18, with a valid driver’s license and proof of auto insurance. Bakers 16-17 years old can participate as part of a parent or adult/child team. Want to contribute without baking? See’s Candies is having a “yumraiser” from now until December 2, with proceeds going directly to Cakes4Kids—perfect for the chocolate lovers on your gift list (or yourself!). You can also shop at AmazonSmile and .5% of your eligible purchases will go to Cakes4Kids.
Every Monday night, volunteers from Streets of Hope gather on the sidewalk at the north side of the Smart & Final Parking Lot located at 720 15th Street downtown to offer food, water, toiletries, conversation, and friendship to the area’s unsheltered population. Every six weeks or so, volunteer hair stylists come to give free haircuts. They also need help with preparing resumes and training on applying for jobs online—all you need to bring is a laptop or smartphone (a separate two-hour appointment is set up at Monday Night Downtown for resume services). You don’t have to bring anything to Monday Night Downtown, but if you’d like to, the most needed items are bottled water, toiletries, and personal hygiene items; clothing (especially socks); and blankets. There’s no training or registration needed for Monday night events, just show up and pitch in. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to sponsor Monday Night Downtown by making 100 sandwiches to distribute, or register to donate hair cutting or resume prep services. Shop AmazonSmile to contribute as well.
Help shape a kid’s future for the better by becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister through Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Diego County. “Bigs” are matched with “Littles” in their area who need stable, consistent mentorship and positive relationships with adults. Programs include the traditional one-on-one and group activities, where Bigs and Littles meet two to four times a month for two to five hours and participate in activities of mutual interest. There’s also Operation Bigs, for Littles with an active-duty military, veteran, or fallen parent, who need extra support during deployment or transitions, plus Hermandad, connecting Latinx youth with Latinx mentors, and Hand in Hand, providing deaf/hard children with deaf/hard of hearing Big Brother or Big Sister mentors to help them navigate communication barriers and confidently manage their way through the hearing world. Bigs must be at least 18 years of age, live in San Diego County, pass a background check, have a valid driver's license, insurance, and a social security number, and most importantly, commit to at least one year in the program.
Father Joe’s Village is the largest rehabilitation program for unsheltered families in San Diego, with over 900 men, women, and children living at the Village. In addition to serving more than 3,000 meals daily, volunteers provide homework tutoring, fitness and wellness instruction, adult education, including reading, math, language, and GED prep, along with dozens of other jobs, from administration to thrift store sales associates. Volunteers are needed in a number of Father Joe’s programs. To find the best fit, fill out a volunteer form, call 619-645-6411, or email email@example.com.
San Diego Habitat for Humanity volunteers participate in building homes for qualified individuals throughout San Diego County, as well as providing a variety of outdoor general repair services to existing homes, veteran’s services, building playhouses for children, and affordable home ownership advocacy. Additional volunteers are needed to help run the Habitat ReStores, which sell new and gently used clothing, dry goods, and furniture.
Laubach Literacy of San Diego is an all-volunteer, educational and charitable non-profit organization that offers free ESL classes for small groups or individuals at 20 locations throughout San Diego County, as well as free learning materials for both tutors and students on their website. The curriculum is based on the Laubach Way, a method of teaching English by tutors who do not speak the students’ first language. No experience is necessary to become a tutor—all necessary training is provided. In order to become a Laubach tutor, you will need to complete the half-day training, and complete and pass a background check, at no cost to you. Upon completion of training, Laubach requests a commitment period of at least six months.
The Center for Community Solutions volunteers provide survivors of sexual and domestic violence with in-person advocacy, emotional support, and help with making informed decisions during forensic examinations. They also share information and referrals for additional services, and act as a liaison between the survivor, local law enforcement, and medical personnel. Volunteers are required to complete a 65.5-hour Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) program as part of their onboarding. CIT is a California Office of Emergency Services-approved training that covers the state training requirement for both sexual assault and domestic violence counselors. CIT is currently offered virtually.
Studies have shown that pet ownership, or even just contact with animals can produce healthy results in humans, and connecting animals and people for their mutual benefit is the mission of the Helen Woodward Animal Center. A no-kill facility, the center provides adoption, medical, and boarding services for dogs, cats, small animals, and birds. Outreach programs include AniMeals, which delivers approximately 3,000 pounds of pet food per month to homebound seniors and people with disabilities; Pets Without Walls, providing preventative health care, vaccinations, and food to the dogs and cats who live with unsheltered families at San Diego’s industrial tent sites; and therapeutic riding for children and adults with special needs. Volunteer for anything from dog walking to event planning for this diverse organization.
Volunteers with NAMI San Diego give support to those struggling with mental illness through their Family and Peer Support informational helpline, by mentoring and advising adults in recovery from a mental health challenge as they enter or re-enter the workforce, or facilitating presentations of Ending the Silence (ETS), an in-school mental health awareness program for high school-age youth.
Give seniors a helping hand
Elderhelp gives seniors the solutions to help them live independently in their own homes for as long as possible by enlisting volunteers for companionship and tasks such as transportation to social events, appointments, errands, and grocery shopping; organizing mail and home; safety maintenance such as installing rails and grip bars; and light gardening.
Serving Seniors provides low-income seniors with hot meals served across six congregate dining sites and delivers to homebound seniors. They also provide affordable housing, social services, and case-management support, plus lifelong learning opportunities, including computer skills training and health and wellness services. More than 85% of their clients live below the Federal Poverty Level, and Serving Seniors provides their services free of charge.
Guardians Angels aims to help seniors residing in long-term care facilities feel less isolated and lonely. Volunteers are needed for one-on-one visits for conversation, walks, or other activities; leading games; coordinating pet, music and art therapy; and support groups for those dealing with memory loss.
Here’s a shocking statistic—one in three San Diegans face food insecurity on a regular basis, and between 30-40% of food in the United States goes to waste. ProduceGood helps provide families with fruits and vegetables by bridging the gap to connect farmers and growers who have excess produce with those who need it through programs like CropSwap, a backyard and small farm harvesting program, and Market Share, where volunteers work with Jimbo’s grocery stores and generous farmers at San Diego farmers markets who donate unsold produce at the end of the day. Check the calendar of events. Volunteer opportunities range from picking fruit and vegetables to administrative and organizational activities and more.
Help Zero Waste San Diego spread their fix-and-save philosophy to reduce waste and combat our throw-away attitude towards consumer goods. Monthly hands-on clinics teach repair skills to those who want to fix their non-functional belongings such as appliances, electronics, computers, bicycles, toys, or clothing. Coaches provide guidance for assessment, disassembly, and possible repair, as well as workspace and specialty tools to help with restoration. Whether reconstruction is successful or not, everyone learns about how their item was made and how it worked. Sign up online if you would like to volunteer for clinics, behind-the-scenes, or remote work.
I Love a Clean San Diego holds two major coastal cleanup days annually, as well as monthly cleanup events targeting not only coastal areas but local creek beds, canyons, and open space parks, plus storm drain stenciling, clothing swaps, and education programs. If you’re looking for more than a one-time event, ILACSD is in need of part-time environmental educators and community engagement volunteer interns.
Formed in 2013 by members of Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, Pathways to Citizenship (formerly North County Immigration and Citizenship Center) provides assistance to immigrants who need support with the network of legal processes and cultural pathways to becoming a U.S. citizen. As Department of Justice Accredited Representatives authorized to practice Immigration Law, they aid in filling out and processing legal documents and applications, provide tutoring in citizenship, and help candidates prepare for U.S. history and civics tests and naturalization interviews, as well as ESL tutoring. In October 2021, Pathways to Citizenship celebrated their 100th client taking her oath and becoming a U.S. Citizen. Volunteers are needed for ESL and citizenship tutoring, document translation, social media posting, and more.
The Chicano Federation provides child development programs, home-based support for parents of children up to age five, infant and toddler child care services, a child nutrition program, and other aid to families across socioeconomic, geographic, and ethnic demographics, including refugees who are seeking a safe and stable environment for their children. Other services include a child development center in Barrio Logan, as well as a housing program with below-market rentals, and a workforce and business development program. Donate to their annual Food Basket Drive or Covid-19 Kit Distribution Campaign, investigate employment opportunities, become a child care partner, or buy some swag to support their cause.
The Girl Scouts of America are best known for their annual cookie sales, but they are also one of the foremost leadership organizations for girls in the country—64% of U.S. women leaders—political, corporate and civic—were once Girl Scouts. With nearly two million Scouts worldwide, plus an additional 800,000 volunteers, opportunities to help range from becoming troop leaders, assistants, and administrators, to experts who share their special skills with area scout troops. Learn more on the San Diego Girl Scouts website.
The Gender Advocacy Project provides support for trans community members with social groups, mental and physical health care, legal services, cosmetic services, and by connecting them with trans-friendly employers. Help out by becoming a group facilitator, manning the front desk, or serving as a member on legal, economic, event planning, media relations, or health care committees. Support the project by applying to volunteer or become a committee member.
Deliver meals to the housebound
Mama’s Kitchen was founded by a San Diego caregiver who organized a small group to prepare and deliver meals to a few neighbors who were suffering from AIDS and unable to shop for and prepare their own meals. Today, Mama’s Kitchen delivers three free meals daily to San Diegans and their children who are coping with HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other devastating illnesses, as well as personal nutritional coaching. You can help by preparing food and bagging meals, but the greatest need is for kitchen staging volunteers and volunteer drivers to deliver meals, especially in North County. A two-hour volunteer orientation takes place two to three times a month.
The well-known meal delivery service, Meals-on-Wheels distributes meals six days a week (Sunday’s meal comes with Saturday’s delivery) to seniors 60 and over and their caregivers, as well as disabled veterans of any age. Meals range from $4–7, and free cat or dog food is available in a partnership with the Helen Woodward Animal Center. Delivery volunteers also perform a safety/wellness check of the client and report back if something seems amiss. Volunteer to deliver meals and assemble We Care packages.
Jewish Family Service delivers hot kosher meals to homebound older adults and younger disabled adults belonging to any and all faiths Monday through Friday, with frozen meals available for the weekends, as well as pet food upon request. Safety/wellness checks are also provided by the volunteer drivers. Volunteers are needed in a number of positions.