These San Diego Charities & Organizations Need Your Help in 2020

Giving makes you feel better, no matter the season.

The holiday season has arrived, and with it comes the usual sense of goodwill and generosity that many of us feel towards our fellow humans. How can you hold on to that feeling all year long? It's simple: by giving your time to help those who are struggling with illiteracy, poverty, illness, who need someone to talk to or just a kind shoulder to lean on. 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 collected more than two dozen local nonprofits and organizations where you can provide help for your fellow San Diegans. And, remember, if you can’t commit your time, each of the sites below have a “Donate” button to make it easier than every to help someone in need.

Boost children’s literacy

Do you remember learning to read, and the excitement of opening a new adventure with each book? Every year, the San Diego Oasis Intergenerational Tutoring Program places adults into San Diego elementary schools to help children in grades K-4 develop their reading and writing skills, build self-esteem, and enhance positive attitudes toward learning. You don't need any teaching experience to volunteer, and free training and materials are provided.

Bring dance into the lives of disadvantaged children and adults

Since its founding in 1988, Malashock Dance has brought educational programs to children, teens, and adults through its dance school, as well as partnering with local schools and institutions to benefit low-income students and families, disabled individuals, and promising dancers who may have financial barriers to their growth. Malashock's cutting-edge programs, such as its flagship Math in Motion dance program, have been shown to improve student engagement, attendance, test scores and parental involvement. Volunteer opportunities include office assistance, community outreach, and help with performances and events.

Team up with your pet to help others

You know how good it feels to spend time with your furry best friend, so why not see if you and your pet qualify to provide the same health benefits and comfort to others in facilities such as hospitals, assisted living centers, and schools? 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. Dogs, cats, horses, pigs, rabbits, birds, guinea pigs, llamas/alpacas, and domesticated rats are all species eligible for the training program.

Get books into the hands of underprivileged students

The San Diego Book Project began in 2007 with the donation of books from a local online bookseller to an inner city school. Since then, the non-profit has given more than 750,000 books to San Diego’s preschool, elementary, middle, and high school classrooms and on-campus libraries, with thousands more given to students to take home for themselves. For some, these are the first books that they have ever owned. Other beneficiaries include schools in South Africa, India, Peru, and the Philippines, Veterans Administration hospitals, jails and prisons, and various other social programs. A monthly open house (held the first Saturday) welcomes teachers and qualified organizations to come to the facility to help themselves to books. Volunteers can not only donate books, but help with book deliveries, sort and organize donated books, or assist during open house events.

Be a tour guide on the USS Midway

The USS Midway is one of San Diego’s most popular tourist attractions, hosting 1.4 million visitors annually, 30% of whom come from outside the United States, making it the most-visited historic naval ship museum in the world. While the price of admission includes a guided audio tour, the museum also has volunteer docents who give groups of visitors an up close and personal view of life aboard an aircraft carrier. Public speaking skills are a plus, and there’s a seven-week, 40+ hour training curriculum (six-hour sessions) to prep you for interacting with the public. If that doesn’t float your boat, there are plenty of other volunteer opportunities aboard, including ensuring visitors have a safe experience, a knot team, teaching assistants for citizenship and ESL tutors, a knot team, and special projects teams.

Bake for at-risk youth

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. 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/child team.

Help the homeless

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 (and on the 2nd and 4th Thursday at the Fellowship Hall at Jericho Road Christian Fellowship in El Cajon) to pass out food, water, toiletries, conversation, and friendship to the area’s homeless population. There’s no training or registration involved; just show up and pitch in. Every six weeks or so, volunteer hair stylists come to give free haircuts. Help with preparing resumes and training on applying for jobs online is also available -- all you need is a laptop or smartphone (a separate two-hour appointment is set up for resume services). 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.

Father Joe’s Village is the largest rehabilitation program for the homeless in San Diego, with over 900 men, women and children living at the Village each day. 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.

Be a mentor

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, Operation Bigs (for Littles with an active-duty military, veteran, or fallen parent, who need extra support during deployment or transitions), Hermandad Hispanic Mentoring to help Latinx Littles thrive and prepare for adulthood, and Amachi (to assist Littles dealing with parental incarceration).

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 organization for girls in the country; 64% of the United State’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 troop leader, assistant, and administrator positions to volunteer experts who share their special areas of skill with area scout troops.

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 where it builds new houses. Additional volunteers are needed to help run the Habitat ReStores, which sell new and gently used clothing, dry goods, and furniture.

Support the LGBTQ community

The San Diego LGBT Center, better known as just The Center, reaches out to the LGBTQ community through special events, HIV awareness programs, and civic involvement with Engage San Diego, The Center also runs a computer lab that provides access to the internet, computer software apps and free computer skills classes, among its many programs and services. The Hillcrest Youth Center and South Bay Youth Center provide support for LGBTQ and non-binary adolescents and youth living with HIV.

The Gender Advocacy Project provides support for transgender individuals through support and social groups, mental and physical health care, legal services, cosmetic services and 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.  

Teach English as a second language

Laubach Literacy of San Diego is an all-volunteer educational and charitable non-profit organization that offers free English classes for small groups or individuals at over 30 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 the necessary training is provided.

Advocate for sexual assault survivors

The Center for Community Solutions volunteers provide survivors of sexual violence with in-person advocacy, emotional support and help with making informed decisions during the forensic examination, provide information and referrals for additional services, and act as a liaison between the survivor, local law enforcement, and medical personnel.

Keep our beaches and waterways beautiful

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, 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. 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 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, and family advocacy and education.

Reduce waste and learn to fix stuff

Help Zero Waste San Diego spread their fix-and-save philosophy to reduce waste and combat our throwaway attitude towards consumer goods. Monthly hands-on clinics teach repair skills to those who want to fix their busted 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. Volunteers are needed for web design and social media support, special event assistance, the San Diego Fixit Clinic, and grant research and writing.

Find forever homes for animals

Studies have shown that pet ownership (or even just contact with another species) 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; and 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. Volunteer for anything from dog walking to event planning for this diverse organization.

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 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 volunteer drivers to deliver meals, especially in North County.

Meals-on-Wheels, the best known meal delivery service, 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.
Jewish Family Service delivers hot, kosher meals to homebound older adults and younger disabled adults of any (or no) faith Monday through Friday, with frozen meals available for the weekends. Meals range in price from $7-$8, and pet food can be requested; safety/wellness checks are also provided by the volunteer drivers.

Support people with mental illnesses

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), a 50-minute 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, home and safety maintenance such as installing rails and grip bars, and light gardening.

Serving Seniors provides more than 5,000 low-income seniors with hot meals served across nine congregate dining sites and delivered to 500+ homebound seniors, as well as 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.

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.

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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.