By Kristina Houck
Del Mar resident Jill Coughlin will be honored as “Volunteer of the Year” by the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Dieguito at the inaugural Caribbean Nights Gala on July 20 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Coughlin, 72, was selected because she has shared her love of gardening with San Diego County youth for more than two decades.
“I am overwhelmed and feel humbled,” Coughlin said. “I’m very honored to be chosen for this because I think that there’s so many people who do a lot.”
A Del Mar resident for more than 40 years, Coughlin is one of the founding board members of the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Dieguito’s Center for a Healthy Lifestyle, which is dedicated to inspiring children and adults to live healthier lives through cooking and gardening.
Opened in April 2009, the Solana Beach-based cottage features a teaching kitchen, classroom space and an interactive garden. The center offers after-school programming and summer camps for children, as well as cooking, gardening and arts classes for adults.
“It’s very rewarding to work with these young children and to see how happy they can be working outside in the garden,” Coughlin said. “They get to work in dirt and they get to see how things grow. It’s very satisfying for them to see something from a tiny seed grow into a beautiful vegetable.”
Because of the success of the center and the dedication of volunteers like Coughlin, the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Dieguito is working on opening a second center called The Sage Garden Project at the Griset Branch in Encinitas.
“We are all fortunate to know Jill and to be able to honor her,” said Barbara Harper, founder and CEO of the center and co-chair of the gala. “She is like no other volunteer. Jill takes hold and owns the job. She gets it done with skill and charm.”
In addition to working with the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Dieguito, Coughlin is the coordinator of Plant Grow Eat, an educational program she helped launch 24 years ago at the San Diego County Fair. The program provides children with seeds, soil and pots so they can grow plants, which are judged during a school field trip to the fair.
Students in kindergarten through third grade plant radish seeds, and fourth through sixth graders plant lettuce, herb or edible flower baskets. All students receive participation ribbons, and first, second and third place winners are selected.
“We were trying to teach children that radishes don’t grow in a plastic bag at a supermarket overnight — to show them they can actually plant the seeds,” said Coughlin, who grows her own fruits and vegetables at home. “They learn responsibility for taking care of their seeds and plants. It gives them some self-satisfaction to see something they accomplished.”
About 325,000 children have participated in the program since it launched, Coughlin said.
“They love it,” Coughlin said. “It’s very gratifying.”
A longtime volunteer in the community, Coughlin is also a board member of the Friends of the Powerhouse, which helps preserve and enhance Del Mar’s Powerhouse Community Center and adjoining public recreational areas. She is a founding member of the Del Mar Garden Club, a member of the Village Garden Club of La Jolla, where she serves on the Schoolyard Gardening Grant Committee, and was named an Honorary Master Gardener in 2012 by the Master Gardeners Association. Coughlin also served on Del Mar’s Parks and Recreation Committee for eight years.
“It’s just part of my nature to give back to the community,” Coughlin said. “The community gives so much to us. I feel blessed to be able to live here. It’s a beautiful place to live with wonderful people, and I think it’s important for the residents of the community to be involved.”
The Caribbean Nights Gala will take place from 4-9 p.m. on July 20 at the Infield Pavilion at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. The event will feature horse racing, silent and live auctions, dinner, dancing and entertainment. In addition to Coughlin, the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Dieguito will honor an outstanding Youth of the Year.
Proceeds benefit programs at the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Dieguito, which serves more than 20,000 local youth.
To register/buy tickets or make a donation, visit