Every day, busloads of local students flock to the Living Coast Discovery Center in Chula Vista. For some, it may be their first up-close encounter with a sea turtle or the first time they’ve truly explored the outdoors.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve heard ‘I’ve never been to the beach. I’ve never touched a crab,’” said Ben Vallejos, Executive Director of Living Coast Discovery Center. “[They say] I’ve never seen this animal, and I didn’t know we have sea turtles right off our coast.”

The lack of access to the outdoors is a common issue for many communities in San Diego. Many local communities lack critical access to parks and green space, according to our Parks for Everyone 2020 report.

Living Coast Discovery Center helps meet that need for equitable access.

“Our mission is to inspire the community to connect with and care for our coastal environment,” Vallejos said.

For Vallejos, the Living Coast Discovery Center mission is personal. Growing up in Hawaii, nature was a big part of his life. When he later realized not everyone had the same access and opportunity to explore all Earth has to offer, he found a way to help others make that connection.

“I volunteered here when I was in college because I loved being around fishes,” he said. “To be here 23 years later as Executive Director – it’s pretty special. To see these kids be excited like I was when I volunteered here just brings me joy.”

Student Development Through Nature

For more than 30 years, Living Coast Discovery Center has reached thousands of children through field trips, outreach, scout programs and other community education programs. On average, the center hosts 80,000 visitors each year, including families, school groups and special events.

“Access to the outdoors is important to development growth because you get to interact with things that cannot be replicated in a classroom environment,” said Alexa Grunst, a volunteer at Living Coast Discovery Center. “It makes us realize we’re not the only species here and we coexist with Mother Nature.”

Living Coast Discovery Center primarily serves students from under-resourced communities – many of which can participate in educational programs at no cost. The goal is to introduce students to nature and improve the quality of life for families in South San Diego.

Protecting Mother Nature

Living Coast Discovery Center

Living Coast Discovery Center also prioritizes conservation and teaches students about the proper ways to explore the outdoors. Students learn about picking up after themselves in nature, composting and more.

“The wildlife around us is really important to our human well-being,” Vallejos said. “If we’re not taking care of the Earth around us, then it’s going to be hard to take care of ourselves.”

Living Coast Discovery Center is a nonprofit partner of San Diego Foundation. The organization has received grants to take part in summer learning programs, like Level Up SD, and has received several Opening the Outdoors grants.

Learn more about the SDF Opening the Outdoors program and Level Up SD.