It’s no secret that though it’s one of the best places to live on earth, San Francisco has its issues. And this year, we can all agree that a lot of those issues have been brought to life in a way that has shown how much work still needs to be done. Luckily, if there’s one thing many of us have right now, it’s more time than usual, which means more opportunities to volunteer. Whether you want to help the homeless, walk a homebound senior’s dog, or help fight for social justice, there are plenty of ways to give back to this community that will make others feel good (and might make you feel better, too).
For those who want to help our unhoused and food-insecure neighbors
San Francisco’s homeless crisis is one of the worst in the country and it is only being made worse by COVID. Not only do we have the third largest population of homeless people in the United States, the percentage of those without shelter (somewhere around 67%) is abominable. Additionally, about 870,000 people in the Bay Area are food-insecure and hunger is more persuasive than ever. Needless to say, anything you can to do help out will be appreciated by those who have to go with a lot less.
GLIDE has been helping all kinds of San Franciscans for over 50 years and is on the forefront of addressing some of our biggest issues, including poverty, housing and homelessness, and racial and social justice. GLIDE has lots of volunteer opportunities, including serving meals, fundraising, and collecting items for care packages. Because of COVID, holiday volunteerism is a little different this year. If you’re interested, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 415-674-8081.
The SF-Marin Food Bank works to make sure people get the food they need. They are in “dire need” of volunteers right now to staff their pop-up food pantries and to deliver meals to homes.
CityTeam helps to restore lives and communities and offers programs dedicated to helping the homeless, providing economic empowerment, and helping people “restore their lives from the grips of homelessness and addiction.” Their goal is to address immediate needs, but also enable lasting solutions. Learn more about how you can help by volunteering.
Bay Area Rescue Mission helps the unhoused starting with their basic needs and then turns the focus to their long-term recovery, including teaching skills to break substance addictions, job training, counseling, job placement, and more. There are all kinds of volunteer opportunities available from serving a meal to tutoring, and whether you want to volunteer once, regularly, or with a group, there are lots of ways for you to get involved.
The Curry Senior Center helps “low income and homeless seniors through a holistic care approach” and needs volunteers to help plan events, serve meals, play bingo (yes, please!), and more.
Project Open Hand has been serving “meals with love” to neighbors who are alone and/or hungry for over 35 years and relies on over 125 people every single day to help prepare, package, and deliver meals. Find their most “pressing need” volunteer positions here and all other positions here.
Meals on Wheels San Francisco provides daily meals and safety checks to homebound seniors, which doesn’t just keep those seniors healthy and fed, but prevents loneliness and isolation. Volunteers do everything from making a friendly (virtual for now) social call to the same person every week, grocery shop for a homebound senior, deliver emergency kits (this is a great option for those who have limited time as you can sign up for one two-hour shift), make holiday cards, and more. See all volunteer opportunities here. Because of COVID, Meals on Wheels isn’t offering its traditional Thanksgiving meal delivery volunteer opportunities, but you can sign up to wish a happy holiday to seniors living at home alone. Every hour, you’ll brighten five people’s days over the phone.
St. Anthony Foundation provides meals, clean clothing, and support to those in need and is always looking for volunteers to help in the dining room, distribute groceries, and help sort clothing. Shifts are limited on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but there’s plenty to do all of the other days of the year. See volunteer opportunities here.
Food Runners picks up excess food from restaurants and delivers it to neighborhood food programs and is always looking for “food runners” to help. They ask for an hour a week and you can choose if you want to be a regular runner or on-call.
If you’re passionate about working with kids, especially those in the Mission and Bayview who have been disproportionately affected by discrimination and poverty, take a look at HOMEY, a grassroots non-profit that identifies issues adversely affecting the young people in our community (with an eye towards the Latinx community) and helping to “empower” rather than “enable” them by “delivering hope, empowerment, leadership, culture, and most importantly love.” You can help with workshops that “focus on addressing and combating internalized oppression, discrimination, poverty, disenfranchisement and other social ills that can often take root in the Latino/a community,” do street outreach at schools and detention centers, help teach life skills and work readiness, and more. Learn more about volunteer opportunities here.
For those who want to help in the healthcare field and those affected by disasters
Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, a lot of hospitals that typically rely on the help of volunteers have paused those programs, but here are a few places that could use your help right now.
If and when disaster strikes, the American Red Cross needs thousands of volunteers to help support emergency shelters, including everything from registering people to feeding them. If you train now, you’ll be able to help immediately when your community needs it.
Planned Parenthood is one of the country’s leading providers of essential and affordable health care and is the nation’s largest provider of sex education, and serves all people no matter what. They’re looking for volunteers to work as health center escorts, support education efforts, and more. Learn how you can get involved here.
Hospice by the Bay provides end-of-life care so that people can face it with dignity and comfort-and they also help support families and caregivers. It requires dedication and training to become a patient and family support volunteer, but even if you only have a few hours, you can spread holiday cheer (and hopefully get lots of donations) by wrapping gifts at the Town Center and Book Passage at Corte Madera all through December.
There with Care provides all kinds of important services to families and children going through a medical crisis, including transportation, meals, home maintenance, and more. Right now the volunteer opportunities are a little more limited because volunteer training has been minimized, but you can still help by making care bags and clothing bundles at home, shopping for much-needed items, and participating in a virtual drive. See all of the COVID-friendly volunteer opportunities here.
For those who want to fight for social justice
This year has helped catapult the fight for racial, social, and economic justice to the front of everyone’s minds. Finally. There are so many ways to help: donate to programs that offer bail assistance, bringing meals to those on the front lines of the protests, help support the legal efforts of those helping people who need help in their personal fight, and more. Here are a few that could use your time and/or money.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area has been fighting for civil rights since 1968 in an attempt to achieve actual “justice for all.” The rely on volunteer attorneys, clerks, fellows, paralegals, and others for both our direct legal services and impact work. Even if you don’t have a legal background, there may still be ways you can help. Find out more here.
The East Oakland Collective is a member-based group serving the communities in East Oakland by working toward racial and economic equality. They focus on civic engagement and leadership, economic empowerment, homeless solutions and services in the form of food justice and housing justice, and neighborhood and transportation planning. Check out their volunteer opportunities here.
For those who want to help with mentorship and education
There aren’t as many opportunities for in-person mentorship opportunities right now, but here are a few places looking for volunteers for bookworms, tutors, and more.
The San Francisco Public Library needs volunteers to help with all kinds of learning opportunities, including supporting youths by being a reading buddy, helping with homework, assisting at storytime, and more; fostering English language fluency and literacy; assisting Veterans; and bridging the digital divide. If you’re looking for a short-term volunteer opportunity, check out Friends of the San Francisco Public Library who need help with book events and online sales.
The Community Music Center makes “high quality music accessible to people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities, regardless of financial means” with students who are as young as a few months old and as old as almost 100. They’re always looking for volunteers who can help with everything from front office reception to concert setup. Learn more here.
Reading Partners needs people who can help with its online tutoring program. The training program is short and you only need to give one hour a week of your time. Learn more here.
For animal lovers
Again, because of the pandemic, a lot of places that usually need volunteers (like the SFSPCA) have paused their programs, but Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS), which helps care for the pets of people living with disability or illness by offering dog walking, transportation to the vet, monthly dog washes, emergency foster care, and more, is still looking for people. There are tons of ways to get involved, including much-needed emergency services right now (not all of which are animal-specific).
For those who want to help immigrants
Needless to say, immigration is one of the biggest issues in our country right now, and though we are so lucky to live in a sanctuary city, there’s still lots and lots of work to be done and ways you can help.
SF-CAIRS(San Francisco Coalition of Asylee, Immigrant, and Refugee Services) helps the Bay Area asylee, immigrant, and refugee community in all kinds of ways. From employment to education to legal services, they work to ensure all immigrants are able to live healthy, productive, and safe lives. Volunteer opportunities change based on what is currently needed, but there’s always a need for “at home humanitarians” who help newly arrived individuals and families answer any and all questions about American culture and processes, as well as provide opportunities for them to explore and make new friends.
Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA) is a membership-based community organizing and empowerment program that enables Latina immigrants to effectively advocate on their own behalf and so much more. They need English language tutors to help staff members strengthen their written and oral vocabulary, as well as to support fundraising efforts. Learn more here.
For those who want to help victims of abuse
Because of stay-at-home orders, there has been a surge of domestic abuse in 2020, and those people need services and help more than ever. Here are two places you can volunteer to help those who seek refuge.
W.O.M.A.N., Inc. has helped survivors of domestic violence in the Bay Area since 1978 through support lines, therapy, community education, and more. Volunteers are a crucial part of the organization and right now they’re looking for people who can help with the survivor support line. Find out more here.
La Casa De Las Madres provides crisis response, emergency shelter, and other support services to women and children who are being exposed to or at risk of abuse. There are opportunities to provide support to survivors directly, as well as behind-the-scenes roles. Learn more here.
For those who want to help people struggling with mental illness or contemplating self-harm or suicide
There are concerns that because of stay-at-home restrictions this year, rates of suicide have increased. Whether or not that ends up being proven, there are still lots of people out there who are in distress and need someone to talk to. San Francisco Suicide Prevention is the oldest community-based telephone crisis center in the country and has over 150 active volunteers every year. If you’re a good listener who is caring, supportive, and up for a challenge, you can be the person who helps pull someone through a crisis, as well as gain life-saving skills that can be used everywhere. Learn more here.
For those who want to help the LGBTQIA+ community
Unfortunately a lot of SF’s LGBT community centers and resources are temporarily closed, but you can still help.The LGBT National Youth Talkline provides peer-support and information in an effort to “help end the isolation and fear that many people who question their sexuality and/or gender go through.” Right now all of the volunteer opportunities are remote, so all you need is internet access and a private and safe space to be able to take calls.
For those who want to help with something holiday-specific
Family Giving Tree’s “Holiday Wish Drive” is going virtual this year, but that’s not going to stop them from providing gifts for Bay Area children, families, and seniors from low-income households. You can help by donating, leading a drive, or helping to sort, wrap, and prepare presents for distribution.
LifeMoves helps homeless individuals and families return to permanent housing and helps to spread joy to those people over the holidays. Volunteering looks a little different this year, but there are still opportunities to donate, start a fundraiser, sponsor a meal, provide decorating kits, and more.
Daisy Barringer is an SF-based freelancer who thinks the Sunday celebrations at GLIDE are one of the best things the city has to offer. Right now, she’s watching them online. See how else she’s keeping busy during this time on her Instagram.
Last February, when there were only a handful of COVID cases in the United States, throngs of people stopped going to San Francisco’s Chinatown out of an unfounded fear that the neighborhood was more likely to have people with the virus. Business for bars and restaurants almost immediately dropped 50 to 70%. Unfortunately, despite our Chinatown being the oldest in North America and an important part of Chinese culture in the city since it was established in 1848, the tourists stopped going there. And then so did locals outside of the neighborhood. And soon, the bars and restaurants were mostly empty and the owners uncertain of how they could survive.
Joceyln Tsaih, an artist who made her way to Oakland by way of Taiwan and Shanghai, saw what was happening to SF’s Chinatown and other Chinatowns in the Bay Area and decided she needed to do something about it. In March of 2020, she created Save Our Chinatowns, an initiative to support Chinatown communities in the Bay Area through art, conversation, and shared love of food.
“I created it as a direct response to the COVID-related racism that was impacting Chinatown businesses in a negative way. I wanted to use my platform as an artist to create a way for people to support them.” Save Our Chinatowns originally launched as a GoFundMe fundraiser (eventually raising over $40,000), and soon, a few more women joined Tsaih’s grassroots efforts to create art and culture-focused initiatives to benefit their beloved Chinatowns.
Because here’s the thing. While Tsaih and the rest of her team believe San Francisco’s Chinatown is an important part of the city’s cultural makeup, it’s more than just that. It’s also personal. “I’m not originally from the Bay Area,” Tsaih explains. “I grew up in Shanghai, China, so Chinatowns across the US have served as a slice of home from me. Being in a Chinatown environment makes me feel immediately like I’m closer to home even though my family is in Shanghai and Taiwan and I’m very far from them.”
“I feel like in Chinese culture and in Chinatown, everything is largely centered around food. That is a big part of how we come together as families and the community and I want people to experience that,” she adds. Not sure where to start? Tsaih recommends the famous Dragon Gate. “That area has been kind of tailored to tourists. It’s very flashy and fun and an eye-opening way to start your journey.” (And it makes for a great Instagram photo as well.)
Want to know where to go from there? We asked the women behind Save Our Chinatowns about their favorite spots and what makes them their go-tos. After all, who better to get recommendations from than people who are using their free time to help save the neighborhood? Here are their picks:
“Kam Po Kitchen is an old-school Hong Kong style eatery that I adore. The staff has a no-nonsense attitude and service ethos that is actually kind of endearing and somehow comforting. It’s a spot that is beloved by locals as well. The roast duck over rice is my personal go-to, but everything I’ve had there has been delicious. As an added bonus, the portion sizes are huge!” – Maya Kulkarni, a Berkeley-based artist and designer who is “very inspired by how food can shape identity.” How to order: Call 415-982-3516.
“Sam Wo is a classic SF staple since it opened in 1907. Its casual, no-frills community has always been my favorite to go to late at night when the lines weren’t stupid long. Nothing beats ending your night out more than orders of BBQ pork rice noodle rolls and waiters forgetting to give you water after asking multiple times. Feels familiar and like home.” – Linh-Yen Hoang, a Vietnamese-American artist and designer whose work is “informed by her identity and experiences, both ordinary and nuanced.” How to order: Use UberEats for delivery.
“Lucky Creation is paradise for vegans. Everything is plant based and affordable, with a wide range of fake meats. The seasoning is subtle but complex, as opposed to in-your-face flavors of more tourist-oriented spots. You can’t go wrong ordering anything with bean curd.” –Megumi Tanaka, an interdisciplinary designer, artist, developer, and expert on obscure information. How to order: Call 415-989-0818.
“When I think of R&G Lounge, I think of sitting at the round tables with family for special occasions. I also think of their signature salt and pepper crab and other Cantonese banquet style dishes. It’s a whole experience we’ve certainly taken for granted in the past.” – Daphne Wu, an Oakland-based freelance web designer who is passionate about community building through food, drinks, and storytelling. How to order: Use Caviar for delivery.
“You can’t go wrong with Lai Hong Lounge if you’re looking for dim sum. All my favorite dim sum dishes are great here and even their egg tarts are the classic dim sum ones that can be hard to find nowadays! If you’re feeling fun you should order the custard buns because they come in the shape of little pigs.” – Jocelyn Tsaih How to order: Use GrubHub, Postmates, or UberEats for delivery.
“I’m obsessed with egg tarts, so when I’m in Chinatown, I always try to see if Golden Gate Bakery is open (their hours are very unpredictable), and if not, sometimes I’ll get a snack called Dragon Beard Candy. It kind of looks like floss, which is why they named it Dragon Beard, but it’s a sweet pastry. I like getting a box of that candy from there.” – Jocelyn Tsaih, an Oakland artist by way of Taiwan and Shanghai, interested in utilizing art as a tool to amplify voices, raise awareness, and give back to communities. Her work is a reflection on human connection and identity. How to order: Golden Gate Bakery is temporarily closed. Call 415-539-7728 for Dragon Papa.