Oak Grove 5th grader Liam O’Connor collects plastic as part of the Once upon a Watershed “Story of Our Estuary” program. Photo by Simone Noble.

Local environmental groups are getting a boost from an international brand headquartered in Ventura.

Patagonia keeps its headquarters in Ventura out of the Great Pacific Iron Works building located on the west end of the city. In addition to selling apparel and goods for hikers, campers and yogis, the retailer has several initiatives, including the Retail Grants Program, which grants a portion of its retail sales revenue to local grassroots organizations with environmental action as their primary goal.

In Ventura County, Patagonia grants funding to many such organizations, including the Ojai Valley Green Coalition, Ventura County Farm to School and others. The retailer has worked closely with such organizations as Ventura Land Trust, Surfrider and CFROG (Citizens for Responsible Oil and Gas), as well.

Once Upon a Watershed, a group focused on teaching youth who live along the Ventura River watershed its importance through engagement, recently received $10,000 in funding from Patagonia. David White, program director, says that the funding from Patagonia makes up about 20 percent of the funding needed annually.

“Part of the goal is to ensure we’re not coming into the new school year not knowing if we can afford to run the program, because that’s happened to us in the past,” said White.

Once Upon a Watershed is fiscally sponsored by the Krishnamurti Foundation’s Oak Grove School in Ojai and partners with the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, the Ventura Land Trust, California Conservation Corps and the Ventura and Ojai Unified School Districts. The organization focuses on bringing school-aged children to the Ventura River and the beach to “learn the story of the estuary,” says White. “It’s about connecting kids to nature, that’s a core part of it. It’s their own ecological address, their own watershed.”

The program serves school children from kindergarten to the sixth grade in 12 different schools from Ojai, Ventura and Oak Grove.

In order to receive funding, a program must pitch the concept and ideas to the Ventura store’s staff, who ultimately decide whether or not to go ahead with the grant.

Bruce Livingstone, store manager, says that the Retail Grants Program kicked off locally in the early 1990s when a Ventura resident protested a proposal that would have paved the Ventura River, which brought to light the ecosystem of the Ventura River and the plan was ultimately scrapped. (UPDATE 5/17/2019: A Patagonia spokesperson says that the program began in 1986 following the Friends of the Ventura River’s successful opposition to a Ventura River development plan)

The Patagonia program is part of the retail store’s global initiative, the 1% for the Planet program, which pledges 1 percent of sales to preservation and restoration of the environment.

“Our mission statement is we’re in business to save our home planet,” said Livingstone.

Patagonia, known for its vocal opposition to the Trump administration’s attempts to open federal lands to oil drilling and exploration, received a $10 million tax cut from President Trump’s Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017. The retailer took that money and donated it to environmental protection groups.

Livingstone says that donations to local organizations have increased as well. Once Upon a Watershed received roughly $3,000 to $4,000 in grants when it first became a Patagonia grantee, with funding significantly increasing recently.

To choose a worthy program to fund, Livingstone says originally, the grants were going specifically to “boots on the ground” groups that could provide “measured results.” As the Retail Grants Program has matured, Livingstone says that groups are chosen by what they can accomplish with what they have.

“Some of the groups we’ve worked with for a long time are watchdog groups, making sure environmental impact reports are being filed, and things like that,” said Livingstone. “Our funding has changed a little bit in the scope of what we focus on, but we’re really looking for groups who stretch the dollar the furthest to have the biggest impact.”

White says that most of the funding Once Upon a Watershed receives goes toward paying educators and transportation for students who live too far away from the beach to walk. Prior to receiving the annual grant, White says that the group gave a presentation to Patagonia in Ventura, dubbing the program “Watershed Warriors” and spoke particularly about what fifth graders study.

“It’s the story of our estuary and the idea that we’re telling a story,” said White. “They learn about the importance of the estuary in the context of the watershed and things in the watershed that affect the estuary, particularly the endangered steelhead trout, and also on plastic pollution.”

Students collect plastic and natural items such as shells and sea purses along the beach to make a sculpture, which is then photographed and discussed in class.

“It’s inspiring to inspire youth to protect their environment,” said White. “If you expect the next generation to protect nature they’ve got to know what it is.”

Livingstone, a Ventura resident, says that his kindergarten-aged daughter participates in beach cleanups alongside him. Funding groups like Once Upon a Watershed is one of the reasons Livingstone says he’s been in the position for over a decade.

“The work [Once Upon a Watershed] is doing, getting children out doors and educating them on negative impacts of human activity on the outside, we really liked what they were doing,” said Livingstone. “I’m a father of a kindergartner and a preschooler so it really struck a chord with me on the work they’re doing to educate our youth and to inspire our next environmentalists.”

For more information on Patagonia’s grant programs, visit https://www.patagonia.com/environmental-grants.html.