17 Ways to Volunteer and Give Back in San Diego

Whether you’re passionate about climate change, sustainability, or just want to help others, there’s a cause or charity that’s perfect for you.

It’s always in season to give back and there’s no shortage of causes to choose from, including feeding the hungry, after-school arts and education, supporting immigrant and LGBTQ communities, climate change initiatives, and more. But with Earth Day around the corner, sustainability and environmental concerns are likely top of mind.

The holiday has been around for more than 50 years, and yet it seems we still think that Mother Nature will be endlessly forgiving of our wastefulness of her natural resources. With the hands of the Doomsday Clock at a heart-stopping 100 seconds until midnight, it’s well past time for us to consider making serious changes to our attitudes and behaviors around climate change, the environment, and living sustainability.

This year, Earth Day spans a full three days, from April 22–24, with events taking place across San Diego, providing actionable ways for all of us to take better care of our land, water, air, wildlife, and fellow humans.

In that spirit, we’ve collected a variety of volunteer opportunities that support San Diego’s precious resources, ranging from beach cleanups to preventing food waste. We’ve also included several San Diego nonprofits that serve some of our most vulnerable citizens and other ways to give back locally. Sites like VolunteerMatch 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 give back.

San Diego Habitat Conservancy
San Diego Habitat Conservancy

Protect San Diego’s open spaces

One of San Diego’s most pleasurable activities is hiking through unique and diverse environments like oak and eucalyptus woodlands, riparian and wetlands, and chaparral. The San Diego Habitat Conservancy is dedicated to the preservation and conservancy of almost 2,000 acres of various habitats in 31 open-space preserves across San Diego County, including the Bridges & Santa Fe Creek Preserve, Emerald Pointe Preserve, Carlsbad Raceway Preserve, and Eureka Springs Preserve. The organization utilizes volunteers to help their scientists and biologists with duties such as mapping and tracking, working with state and federal wildlife agencies, sign replacement, invasive species removal, and community outreach.

Help reduce food waste and insecurity

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 bridges the gap by connecting 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 generous farmers at three San Diego farmers markets who donate unsold produce at the end of the day. Volunteer opportunities range from picking fruit and vegetables to administrative and organizational activities and more.

Zero Waste San Diego
Zero Waste San Diego

Reduce waste and learn how to fix stuff

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. Volunteers are needed for web design and social media support, special event assistance, the San Diego Fixit Clinic, and grant research and writing. Sign up online if you would like to volunteer for clinics, behind-the-scenes, or remote work.

Help protect our native habitats

Continued construction and development in San Diego impacts many of our native habitats. The Environmental Center of San Diego has a goal to use education, activism, and direct action to address issues such as loss of biodiversity and climate change. Their projects include ReWild Mission BaySave Our Special Species Education Programs, The Wildlife Habitat Conservation Coalition, and the Princess Street Coastal Access Trail Project. They need help with cleanup events, habitat restorations, and educational and awareness projects.

Support safe water efforts

Without water, there is no life. Here in San Diego, our oceanfront as well as freshwater resources need constant monitoring and supervision to keep them safe and usable today and for future generations. San Diego Coastkeeper was originally established in 1995 (as San Diego Baykeeper) to oppose the dumping of waste into the San Diego Bay. Today, they are involved in everything from monthly monitoring of our watersheds to providing teachers, parents, and students with educational materials on the latest issues and information. 

I Love A Clean San Diego
I Love A Clean San Diego

Keep our beaches and waterways beautiful

I Love a Clean San Diego holds two major coastal cleanup days annually, plus 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. Their 20th Annual Creek to Bay Cleanup takes place on Earth Weekend, April 23. This year’s cleanup returns to hosted events at nearly 75 locations across San Diego County. Last year, 2,307 volunteers self-reported collecting 26,524.95 total pounds of litter and 3,212.95 pounds of recyclables in one day. Get the FAQs here and register as an individual or group to help with the cleanup effort.

Solana Center for Environmental Innovation
Solana Center for Environmental Innovation

Reduce landfill waste

The Solana Center for Environmental Innovation aims to reduce landfill waste of all kinds by educating and providing resources for individuals, families, and businesses who wish to adopt a more earth-friendly lifestyle. From e-waste dropoff centers to in-person workshops on how to “close the loop between organic waste and healthy soil” by composting, worm farming, and rainwater collection, their outreach programs provide an organized approach to reducing waste for families and businesses alike. They even have a tool lending shed! Volunteers are needed to help with school programs, community outreach booths, compost workshops, zero waste projects, docents, and a variety of hands-on and administrative projects.

Tree San Diego
Tree San Diego

Plant trees in San Diego’s urban forest

Nothing is more relaxing than sitting under a canopy of trees on a sunny day, but did you know that a thriving urban tree canopy also helps to improve water quality, reduces stormwater runoff, reduces energy use in homes and businesses, alleviates air pollution, provides for wildlife habitats, and increases property values, just for starters? Tree San Diego is dedicated to increasing the county’s tree canopy (which was assessed at 13% in 2014) with the guiding principle of “the right trees, in the right places, with the right care.” Their programs include Tree Advantage, which aims to increase the canopy in disadvantaged areas, and Rejuvenation, a program that diverts dead trees from the landfill to products like lumber, furniture, musical instruments, bio-polymers, and wood charcoal/biochar (a soil amendment that reduces nutrient runoff and supports beneficial microbial growth). Volunteers are needed for weekend tree watering, and internships are available. Sign up for their newsletter to learn of future opportunities and to get the latest news.

Help immigrants become United States citizens

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 US citizens. 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 US 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 US Citizen. Volunteers are needed for ESL and citizenship tutoring, document translation, social media posting, and more.

Support local Latinx organizations

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.

Father Joe's Villages
Father Joe's Villages

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 to offer food, water, toiletries, conversation, and friendship to the area’s unhoused 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 tammy@streetsofhopesandiego.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.

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. 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 volunteer@neighbor.org.

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 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 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.

Support the LGBTQ community

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.

Mama's Kitchen
Mama's Kitchen

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 personal nutritional coaching. 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 twice monthly on Thursdays.

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.

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.

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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 and drinking fabulous gin. Keep up with her experiments @MaryBeth_Abate.