Sara and Mitch Wagner agreed to be profiled as Donor Advised Fund holders only to encourage others to use their wealth for good. But it’s hard not to discuss their touchingly romantic love story, which included dueling engagement proposals, as well as Mitch’s passion for animals and repairing the world.

Mitch had a successful career as a trial lawyer in San Diego. Among his notable cases was the 2007 wildfire litigation against San Diego Gas & Electric in which Mitch and colleagues represented hundreds of families who lost homes and suffered other losses. He also handled animal welfare and rights cases during his four decades of practice, including a case in the 1980s to stop student experiments on live animals in the San Diego Unified School District and a late 1990s case to save a large beaver population at Lake Skinner from extermination by government officials.

His devotion to animals began as a child. “I was the kid who brought strays home,” Mitch said. In junior high school, Mitch became involved with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) movement to stop the clubbing to death of Canadian harp seals for their fur. He had his classmates sign petitions in school and donate to IFAW – an organization he supported for decades.

Wrapping up his legal practice has given Mitch an opportunity to reflect on the good fortune he’s had. “I believe we should leave this earth a better place when we exit.” Mitch is keenly aware of the privileges bestowed upon him and is grateful for the successes he’s had. Paying homage to his wife’s Catholic upbringing and Christian beliefs, Mitch loosely quotes from the book of Luke, “From him to whom much is given, much is expected.”

So how did Mitch and Sara meet? Not too many love stories begin in at a Chinese restaurant on Cinco de Mayo. But that’s where Sara and Mitch happened to be having lunch at separate tables with friends. Sara caught Mitch’s eye and he went over to ask her out. She insisted on taking his phone number – not the other way around. And then she played it cool. Really cool. She waited a whole month to call him back.

Apparently it worked. After an extended courtship, Mitch proposed in Tijuana, where Sara was born, at their favorite Javier Plascencia restaurant, Villa Saverios. Not to be outdone, during an FIDF mission to Israel, Sara proposed to Mitch in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, presenting him a wedding band with both their names engraved in Hebrew.

Mitch’s and Sara’s passion for travel has taken them to places as diverse as San Marino, Tahiti, Israel, Canada, and throughout Mexico. On one such trip, they volunteered to assist with a weekend spay-neuter clinic at a remote Mexican village held by Dr. Jeff of his namesake TV show on Animal Planet. Their philosophy is to try to leave the world a better place and, quoting Margaret Meade, Mitch believes “you should ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.'”

His own philanthropy, in addition to health and human services, and Israeli organizations, focuses on animal welfare, including Planned Pethood International founded by Dr. Jeff, The Humane Society, and Cell Dogs, a nonprofit that rescues dogs on the brink of being euthanized and pairs them with prison inmates who train them for adoption, while reducing recidivism and providing career skills. Sara’s philanthropy focuses on women’s empowerment initiatives like Amigas Punto Com, which provides Latina women a safe place to connect with others during challenging and life altering situations caused by loss and adversity.

About a decade ago, Mitch became connected to the Jewish Community Foundation through his accountant Kurt Filipovitch. Mitch was impressed by the staff, the investment pools that allow donors’ philanthropic assets to grow over time, and the speed and thoroughness of JCF’s research and granting service. Mitch has maintained a fund with JCF ever since.

Mitch sums up his approach to philanthropy by quoting his grandfather, who grew up in Lithuania next to Menachem Begin, and who told him, “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” Mitch tries to live up to those words.

Sara and Mitch Wagner
Sara and Mitch Wagner