Santa Barbara Middle School (SBMS) has announced that iconic Santa Barbara photographer, environmentalist and educator Ernie Brooks II (owner and president of Brooks Institute from 1971-99) has officially gifted the school Jefferson Campus on the Riviera, giving SBMS a permanent home for the first time in its 40-year history.

With sweeping views of Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands, the Jefferson Campus property is valued at nearly $8 million, making it one of the largest donations given to an independent school in our region.

SBMS honored Brooks for both this gift and his countless other contributions to the Santa Barbara community in a series of 40th anniversary celebrations, including a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony.

SBMS, an independent school, began leasing the ocean-view property in 2011, after Head of School Brian McWilliams and Brooks sat down over a cup of coffee at iHOP.

Their conversation revealed numerous parallels in the paths of Brooks and SBMS, from a penchant for exploring, learning about and protecting the Channel Islands, to a deep sense of gratitude for life in Santa Barbara and a commitment to giving back.

A shared mission emerged that both had been pursuing for decades: inspiring students to live a life of continuous learning and adventure while making a positive difference in the world.

Brooks, a lifetime marine advocate renowned for his developments in black-and-white underwater photography, has been a regular visitor on campus since day one, soaking in the new energy coursing through the halls that he spent so many years cultivating into the Brooks Institute creative hub.

He inspires SBMS students with impromptu stories of his worldwide adventures, consults on new educational programs, and delights in the children’s own accounts of photographing the waters around the Channel Islands, pursuing global philanthropic endeavors, and championing conservation.

Like Brooks, SBMS is dedicated to giving back to the community, and over one-third of students who attend receive financial assistance.

In 2015 they established the Ernie Brooks Wondership, a scholarship that provides students a full ride to SBMS. The scholarships are given annually to deserving Santa Barbara students with the greatest financial need.

At the end of 2014, convinced of the school’s ability to carry on his life’s work, Brooks reached out to McWilliams to extend a new offer: a certificate of title for Jefferson Campus to pass to SBMS in perpetuity.

“Planned giving is the American way of giving back, and this is my way of giving back for the education I received in Santa Barbara,” said Brooks. “Santa Barbara Middle School has the right focus, and a mission statement evidenced by the school’s achievements and leadership that has touched my heart.”

Jefferson Campus has a long educational history. Built in 1933, it housed Jefferson Elementary School for Santa Barbara Unified School District for 40 years, with a brief stint as a nurse’s auxiliary training facility during World War II.

Brooks bought the property in 1976 to house an expansion of Brooks Institute, where he was president from 1971-99.

Brooks retired and sold the school to Career Education Corp. in 1999, but continued to lease Jefferson Campus to them until the Institute moved to a Ventura location in 2011.

Rather than sell the valuable property at this point, Brooks set out to find an organization that would continue his life’s work of inspiring the imagination and creative pursuits of youth. SBMS, who in 2011 was seeking a new location, turned out to be an exact match.

“From the moment we moved in, Jefferson Campus has provided the perfect environment for our school’s work to flourish,” commented McWilliams. “Now, thanks to Ernie’s immense generosity and vision, Santa Barbara Middle School has found a permanent home, and we can turn our full focus to what matters most: inspiring a future generation of compassionate, innovative, and confident difference makers.”

The ribbon-cutting event on Oct. 7 honored Brooks for his gift, while celebrating the 40th anniversary of SBMS. At the event were Rep. Lois Capps, State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, Santa Barbara County Supervisors Janet Wolf and Salud Carbajal, Santa Barbara Mayor Pro Tempore Harwood Bendy White and Santa Barbara City Council member Cathy Murillo, along with members of Brooks’ diving, photography and Brooks Institute communities.

To further honor the profound impact Brooks has had on the photography, diving and educational community, SBMS hired local firm Oniracom to create a website in his honor, The site tells the story of the shared mission between Brooks and SBMS, but more importantly serves as a repository of articles, videos and stories from Brooks’ life. The website was shared with him just prior to the ribbon cutting at a school town-hall meeting.

Anyone whose life has been impacted by Brooks is encouraged to give back to him by visiting the site and sharing either a meaningful story from his life or a gratitude. Visitors to the site can also continue in the footsteps of Brooks’ legacy by contributing to one of several causes he continues to champion.

— Nicole Wald for Santa Barbara Middle School.