By Sara Butler | Editor
Cleaning, protecting and promoting the San Diego River
Tiffany Swiderski isn’t your typical leader. Everything about the San Diego native — from her adventurous resumé to her cool-chick appearance — seems to stand out in an office setting; perhaps that is part of the reason she prefers being out in the field. It is there where she develops a large staff of volunteers.
For the past two years, Swiderski has held the title of the field coordinator at the San Diego River Park Foundation (SDRPF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the restoration of the San Diego River.
Now a Ramona resident who commutes daily to the SDRPF office, Swiderski attended high school in Linda Vista, meaning she frequently crossed the San Diego River while growing up. Yet, like many locals, she wasn’t really aware of the natural resource nearby. Part of what she loves about her job today is educating other unknowing residents about its existence.
“I love connecting the community with the river,” Swiderski said. “I think I had always known that there were bodies of water in Mission Valley, but I don’t think I realized they were all one body of water that was connected.”
In her current role, Swiderski coordinates the River Cleanup program, which consists of small events with core volunteers, as well as larger weekend community cleanups. These core volunteers — who are required to complete a minimum of 25 hours working in the riverbed — are called “Gold Shirts” after the T-shirts they receive once they meet the requirement.
In 2017, Swiderski organized approximately 60 cleanups, which collected a total of 261,100 pounds of trash.
Though this seems impressive, Swiderski said the numbers are less than the foundation’s average in previous years. In an effort to keep the community safe, she said the nonprofit had to suspend the larger, weekend cleanup program due to hepatitis A concerns.
Despite this roadblock, the outbreak hasn’t stopped her momentum. Every Wednesday, Swiderski rounds up her vaccinated crew of core volunteers for small, low-key cleanups. She also started up a new Saturday morning cleanup in December 2017 that has continued into the new year.
With an emphasis on the natural aspects of the river and its resources, the River Cleanup team often runs into the abundant homeless population that chooses to camp in the riverbed.
“Although we’re an environmental nonprofit and focus on the environmental side of things, we deeply care about the people who live in the riverbed,” Swiderski said. “We meet people all the time.”
While the SDRPF cleanups always occur on inactive, vacant sites, sometimes an active homeless encampment will be set up nearby. Swiderski and the volunteers always make sure to inform the inhabitants that they will be conducting a cleanup, so as not to alarm or disturb them. The team also makes a point to talk to people, learn their names and get to know them — often learning how they ended up in their situation and what resources they may need.
“I don’t care if they remember [my name] … if I can help one little bit, it’s wildly successful for us, but it’s also huge morale booster for them,” Swiderski said.
In addition to the River Cleanup program, Swiderski is also in charge of all private events. Local corporate groups or service organizations — such as Town and Country and the Rotary Club — often approach her to put together team-building activities that give back to the community, which may involve the creation of murals and plant and butterfly gardens.
Swiderski said that sometimes the Gold Shirt volunteers step up and take on leadership roles at these events, educating the groups about the San Diego River, native and invasive plants, and sources of trash.
“I think that some of the work we do can be a little exhausting and emotionally draining, especially when you see the trash continuing to come back,” Swiderski said. “But the volunteers have so much energy and so much passion that it re-energizes me. We’ve very much become a family.
“I try to keep things light and fun, because the nature of the work we all do together, what brought us together, is a really heavy thing,” she said.
In addition to keeping the group in good spirits, Swiderski strives to be fully transparent with the volunteers. She treats them as part of the staff and often invites them to meetings at the SDRPF office in the Morena area to discuss upcoming cleanup locations, possible challenges and new ideas.
“I never feel like I’m doing this job by myself because I have so many amazing volunteers that have a vested interest in the success of the program and the organization — I love that,” she said.
SDRPF conducts River Surveys twice a year in April and October. In their most recent survey, they found that the number of active homeless camps jumped to 116, up from 61 last year. Other information they collect also includes overall trash data, including storm water debris, dump sites, construction waste and invasive plants.
Swiderski emphasized the importance of sharing these data with their partners — including stakeholders within the city of San Diego, the police, lifeguards and landowners — so the information can be used for community benefit. SDRPF then offers recommendations based on the data to the groups, and lends a hand orchestrating necessary cleanups.
“The information that we collect [in the surveys] and the work we do is cool because it’s not just us as SDRPF doing this work and holding on to it,” she said. “We’re really trying to get so many stakeholders together to make a difference and get the river clean and healthy, but also keep people safe.”
Aside from her SDRPF career, Swiderski’s professional and personal path has been full of adventures, volunteer experiences and other nonprofit work.
“I have done a few rounds of AmeriCorps, so I have done some disaster relief and some wetland restoration work … I really loved that,” Swiderski said. “I got started doing it because I went on alternative spring break to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and did some recovery work [there]. I was blown away by all of the efforts a year later that were going on.”
Last fall, Swiderski flew out to Houston, Texas, to help out with Hurricane Harvey. She also challenged herself to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa last March. After her friends politely declined, she decided to make the trip solo, eventually meeting up with a group celebrating International Women’s Day to complete the mission.
Despite her many achievements, Swiderski always directs the conversation back to her volunteers in the River Cleanup program. She said that when she felt like giving up on the Kilimanjaro climb, she scrolled through encouraging emails from her crew for motivation.
“I seriously love those people,” she said. “We’re a crazy, productive, loving bunch.”
Though the community cleanups are still on hiatus for safety reasons, the biweekly cleanups are open to the dedicated public. For more information about the San Diego River Foundation, visit sandiegoriver.org. If you’d like to join Swiderski and the Gold Shirt team, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Sara Butler is the editor of Mission Valley News. Reach her at email@example.com.