One Cool Earth's (OCE) story is about people--it took over 5000 of us to get to where we are today: volunteers in the early days planting trees in the open spaces around San Luis Obispo county, enthusiastic teachers and parents getting their schools involved in growing gardens, food service directors who saw the benefits of nutrition education, our donors: individuals, family foundations, government grantors, and local businesses who have provided generously for our every need for the last 16 years. Among these thousands of contributors to our mission, a few stand out: It all started with Lionel Johnston. Lionel had been an iron-worker's foreman for most of his career, helping to build some of the largest structures on the Central Coast, including Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant and Cal Poly's Kennedy Library. Around 1990, Lionel suffered a near-fatal injury when a piece of wood fell from higher up on his work site, breaking through his hardhat and shattering bones in Lionel's spine and feet upon impact. Lionel was forced to retire. Despite constant pain and limited mobility, Lionel did not give up on life. Instead, he took to planting trees to replace native oaks that had disappeared over the past 200 years. Lionel saw oaks as a symbol of his personal strength to persevere and as a benefit to the county, providing clean air, water, habitat, shade, an antidote to climate change and sheer beauty.
Working near Cambria, Lionel encountered Chris and Sue Elliott who saw the value in his cause. Together, they founded the nonprofit One Cool Earth in 2001. Over time, more people got involved: students began growing the trees at schools while learning about native ecology; and volunteers began helping with planting. The program continued that way for nearly a decade, planting over 1000 native trees per year and working with thousands of local volunteers.
In 2007, Greg Ellis, a Cal Poly student at the time, began volunteering with Lionel and Chris with organizing tree plantings as well as documenting and tracking tree survival. Greg originally studied pre-medicine and had ambitions of becoming a doctor. During a summer internship at an emergency room, he was confronted with the disheartening reality that most of the patients he worked with suffered from preventable diseases--type II diabetes, heart disease, and other complications of obesity related to diet and exercise. Back at university and working with more and more schools, a solution emerged: we noticed that many schools had garden where we could propagate our trees. However, the gardens were often run-down--diamonds in the rough. In 2010, Greg dropped out of graduate school and began writing grants to take back the gardens for health and education. Beginning with one school in Paso Robles and adding new schools every year, the program focus shifted to garden-based education.
In 2013, Victoria Carranza began volunteering with One Cool Earth. Through a grant from the local public health department, she began working at underserved schools to integrate garden education, health, and science. Victoria, a brilliant collaborator, continually linked her work with local nonprofits, businesses, volunteers and government agencies. She lead efforts to receive nearly $2 Million dollars to upgrade school infrastructure and launched a compost and recycling program at 17 public schools.
Since 2015 many talented and dedicated staff have worked with One Cool Earth: Audrey Moorhead, Jesse Gibson, Megan van Hamersveld, Mariah Marten Ray, Miranda Beals, Ed Surman, Delia Horwitz, each contribute their unique skills and passion to create the program we have today.
We call our new program EarthGenius. We believe that learning, growing, and eating in the garden unlock the inherent genius in everyone. Genius isn't just about book smarts, it's about reconnecting with our health, our families and community, and the earth. We are learning to address health, academic, and wellbeing more directly than ever. Drawing together Food Forests, Zero Waste, and Water Wise concepts, the program currently works at schools in San Luis Obispo County to measurably improve student health, academics and wellbeing. Will you help us change lives?