These San Diego Charities & Organizations Need Your Help Right Now

‘Tis the season for giving back.

The holiday season has arrived, and with it comes a renewed sense of goodwill and generosity toward our fellow humans. In a year that’s been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever to help those who are struggling. In that spirit, we’ve collected more than two dozen local nonprofits and organizations so you can lend a hand to your San Diego neighbors. If none of these seem like a good fit, sites such as Volunteer Match and HandsOn San Diego can help you find volunteer opportunities that are right for you. And if you aren’t able to commit your time, each site has a “Donate” button, making it easier than ever to help someone in need.

Be an ally for San Diego’s first people

Native Like Water educates Indigenous youth in science, outdoor education, conservation, wellness, and cultural self-exploration with programs that include Indigenous Science, Surf and Paddle, a study of the maritime coastal culture of Indigenous Southern California, and Indigenous Science of Water, in collaboration with UCSD-Scripps Institute of Oceanography, UCSD Departments of Physics and Chemistry, Kumeyaay-Luiseno Ethno-Botonists and other organizations to provide young Indigenous scholars with access to the best science universities and outreach, and to provide Indigenous communities with access to research expertise, as well as curricula in Wellness and Nutrition, Composition and Literacy, The Art of Storytelling and more. You can support their mission with grassroots outreach through social media and word-of-mouth, by volunteering to be a subject matter expert, donating to support their Ilimanator Scholarship and Nigani Scholarship, mentoring summer residential students, or donating cash.

Promote literacy for children and adults

According to the San Diego Council on Literacy, more than 560,000 adults in San Diego County read at a fourth grade level or below, which acts as a hurdle to better employment opportunities and economic empowerment. Their tutoring programs help young readers develop good habits, support adults in intermediate and advanced skills, coach ESL students, and promote family literacy. In addition, SDCOL partners with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which sends an age-appropriate book to children who are registered with the program every month, at no cost to the family. Teaching experience is not necessary and training is provided. Apply to be a tutor or donate cash.

Support local Latinx organizations

The Chicano Federation provides child development programs, home-based support for parents of children up to age 5, 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.

Help immigrants become US citizens

The North County Immigration and Citizenship Center, formed in 2013 by members of the Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, provides assistance to immigrants who need support navigating the legal processes to become US citizens. In their role as Department of Justice Accredited Representatives authorized to practice immigration law, they provide tutoring in citizenship, help candidates prepare for US history and civics tests and naturalization interviews, aid in filling out and processing legal documents and applications, as well as ESL tutoring. Support the center by becoming a volunteer and/or donating.

Team up with your pet to help others

For more than 40 years, Pet Partners’ Therapy Animal Program has been providing animal-assisted interventions for a wide variety of client needs, including students with literacy challenges, seniors living with Alzheimer’s disease, veterans suffering from PTSD, patients in recovery, intellectually disabled persons and those approaching the end of life. In-person visits aren’t possible under the current conditions, and while it’s not quite the same as petting a cute, furry face, they’ve deployed a Facebook group where schools, health care facilities, and other institutions can view their slideshows, videos, and other adorable content. If you’re interested in becoming a future pet partner, take their quiz to see if you and your pet are a good fit, then check their online training. You can also purchase merch or make a cash donation.

Help the homeless

Volunteers for Streets of Hope gather every Monday night from 6-8pm on the sidewalk at the north side of the Smart & Final Parking Lot located at 720 15th Street in downtown to pass out food, water, and toiletries to the area’s homeless population. There’s no training or registration involved, just show up on a Monday and pitch in. You don’t have to bring anything, but if you’d like to, the most needed items are bottled water, toiletries, and personal hygiene items, clothing (especially socks) and blankets. Their more hands-on activities (like haircuts and massage) are currently on hiatus, but special events like their quarterly birthday parties for homeless children and youths are still happening. For longer term commitments, check out their volunteer opportunities page; cash donations are also welcome.

Father Joe’s Villages is the largest rehabilitation program for the homeless in San Diego, with over 900 men, women, and children living in the villages. 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. Support Father Joe’s by joining their virtual 5K Turkey Trot, donating goods via dropoff or pick up, shopping their thrift stores and auctions, volunteering through Father Joe’s and the Ladies Guild, or donating cash.

Nurture future women leaders

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 the US’ 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 volunteering to become troop leaders, assistants, and administrators, to volunteer experts who share their special skills with area scout troops. Support their Stuff the Bus Food Drive from December 7-12, give a Girl Scout store gift certificate, or donate cash.

Build a better San Diego

San Diego Habitat for Humanity volunteers participate in building and rehabbing homes for qualified individuals throughout San Diego County, as well as implementing major multi-year Neighborhood Revitalization efforts in the communities of Escondido, Imperial Beach, Logan Heights, and other neighborhoods. Additional volunteers are needed to help run the Habitat ReStores, which sell new and gently used clothing, dry goods and furniture. While onsite construction activities are on hiatus, but you can still support Habitat ReStores with purchases and donations of goods, or by donating cash.

Support the LGBTQ community

The San Diego LGBT Center, better known as The Center, reaches out to the LGBTQ community through special events, HIV awareness programs, transgender services, Black and Latinx services and civic involvement, with Engage San Diego among its many programs and services. The South Bay Youth Center provides support for LGBTQ and non-binary adolescents and youth living with HIV. Apply to volunteer or for their intern training program, create a fundraiser, or donate cash.  

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 making a cash donation.

Keep our beaches and waterways beautiful

I Love a Clean San Diego normally 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, a storm drain stenciling and education program, and a cigarette litter prevention program that has reduced cigarette butt litter 55% on average in targeted areas. Currently, they’ve pivoted to neighborhood cleanups to prevent litter from making it into waterways in the first place. If you’re looking for more than a one-time event, ILACSD is in need of volunteers with skills in graphic design, community organizing, and flying drones.

Provide aid to refugees

Nile Sisters Development Initiative’s founder, Elizabeth Lou, the recipient of numerous awards including the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights and The President’s Volunteer Service Award under former President Barack Obama, came to the United States as a refugee in 1999. Knowing the challenges that refugees face upon entering the US, her mission is to “educate, support, and offer training to refugee and immigrant women and their families to help them overcome barriers to social and economic self-reliance.” Programs and volunteer opportunities include emergency relief, employment facilitation, community health internships, case management, office administrative work, community workshop and event planning, tutoring certified nursing assistant (CNA) students, and family advocacy and education. Apply to volunteer, or donate here.

Find forever homes for animals

Studies have shown that pet ownership, or even just contact with animals can have a positive health impact for 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 homeless families at San Diego’s industrial tent sites and therapeutic riding for children and adults with special needs. Animal adoptions are available by appointment, animals are available for fostering in your home, or volunteer in other areas.  Donate here.

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. They also have pantry service and personal nutritional coaching. Help by preparing food, bagging meals and pantry items, assisting pantry clients and answering phones, but the greatest need is for kitchen staging volunteers and volunteer drivers to deliver meals, especially in North County. You can also support their mission by ordering holiday pies, donating holiday meals, making food donations, or donating cash here.

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 to $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, provide office support and assemble We Care packages, or donate cash here.

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. They range in price from $7-8, and pet food can be requested. Safety/wellness checks are also provided by the volunteer drivers. Due to increased demand since COVID-19, Jewish Family Service has increased the capacity of the Loonin Family Kitchen from 400 to 1,600+ meals daily, running two full shifts to accommodate the increase. As a result, they have transitioned the kitchen to be non-kosher until further notice. They have acquired pre-made kosher meals for those who require them. Volunteer to help, or donate cash here and your gift will be matched by private donors.

Support people with mental illnesses

Volunteers with NAMI San Diego give support to those struggling with mental illness through the Family and Peer Support informational helpline, by mentoring and advising adults who are recovering from mental health challenges as they enter or re-enter the workforce, and facilitating presentations of Ending the Silence (ETS), a 50-minute mental health awareness program for high school age youth. The bulk of NAMI SD’s staff is working remotely and is using online formats for support groups and community participation, and are working to migrate their education activities online as well. Volunteer to help, or donate cash here.

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 medically required appointments and delivery of groceries and other essential goods. Volunteer applications are being accepted and webinar training is available, or donate here

Serving Seniors provides more than 5,000 low-income seniors with hot meals, affordable housing, social services and case-management support, 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. Due to COVID-19, all of their congregate dining sites have been temporarily closed, so Serving Seniors has transitioned to home-delivered meals for all clients, and they are serving pre-packaged to-go meals daily for seniors at the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center. Volunteer applications are being accepted, or contribute to their wish list. Donate here.

Guardians Angels aim to help seniors residing in long-term care facilities feel less isolated and lonely. Volunteers are needed for assistance in their adult day care centers on a case-by-case basis. Apply to volunteer or donate here.

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Mary Beth Abate is a San Diego-based freelance writer by way of Chicago and Los Angeles. Her hobbies include yoga, pickling and fermenting various vegetables and beverages, reading cookbooks and traveling around Mexico. Keep up with her experiments @MaryBeth_Abate.