Kevin MacDonald and McNeill Mann reinforce environmental stewardship
By Aimee O’Grady
Leadership is a popular topic in Fauquier County. Strong emphasis is being given to existing and future leaders. In the northern end of the county, a young couple is also focused on leadership. They are leading an organization that is equipping people with the skills to be environmental stewards and redefining the connection humans have with nature.
Kevin MacDonald and McNeill Mann have been collecting wilderness survival skills and homesteading skills for the past decade, mainly in the form of youth outdoor education. They have recently brought their expertise to Earth Village Education, where MacDonald serves as the executive director and Mann serves as the administrator director and farm coordinator. Earth Village Education (EVE), based in Marshall, is a nonprofit dedicated to reinforcing environmental stewardship. EVE offers workshops and camps for both children and adults on firemaking, wilderness first aid, wildflowers, making natural sodas, beekeeping, and so much more.
The couple met in 2005 at a summer camp in North Carolina where both were working as outdoor trip leaders. After that experience, they were presented with an opportunity to live off-grid in a cabin in Boone, North Carolina. The community was comprised of approximately twelve families who all shared an interest in simple, sustainable, and self-reliant living, including learning to make items themselves instead of purchasing them from stores.
The community pooled resources together and collaborated on larger projects. “We tended pigs, chickens, and rabbits, managed a large garden, and began keeping bees,” says MacDonald. He admits that he experienced some level of frustration with the amount of time things took; for example, showering. “We didn’t have any hot water, only cold water from a gravity-fed spring. So, we would put pots of water on the stove and dump them over our heads in the tub to take a shower,” he recalls. The experience made him respect modern conveniences. During these years, MacDonald worked as a graphic artist about 20 minutes away. “I would leave my 16 by 16 foot off-grid cabin and work with cutting edge design software in a fully modernized office,” he says. Meanwhile, Mann remained in the arena of education, working for an outdoor education group. “There were a lot of transferable skills between outdoor education and homesteading,” she says.
Perhaps one of their most memorable experiences was the process of making sorghum molasses. “One of the neighbors in the community had an ancient sorghum press. We thought it would be a great experience to make molasses. We planted sorghum in early summer when the soil was warm enough for the plant to germinate.” The members of the community worked together to harvest the sorghum and used literal horsepower to work the press and extract the molasses. “The fun part is having everyone come together in the off-grid community, whether it was making the molasses, gathering firewood, bringing in the fall harvest, or processing animals,” says Mann.
After leaving Boone, the couple ventured west and worked for a teen adventure group in Washington State. When they completed that opportunity, MacDonald received a call. “My college friend contacted me about an opportunity in Virginia to lead a nonprofit dedicated to nature connection and sustainability. She thought our experiences as outdoor leaders and homesteaders would make us a good fit,” says MacDonald. They traveled east and visited the center for a week. “By the end of the week, we knew this would be the right opportunity for us. We packed up our things on the west coast and drove cross-country to Virginia,” says MacDonald. They began at EVE in November of 2014. “In the two and a half years that we have been here, we have worked to bring sustainability instructors to the center to offer education sessions on a variety of topics.”
“One of our goals is to strengthen relationships with the local educational system and invite more school groups out here, while also offering programming for adults,” says MacDonald.
The education center is experiencing growth and is hiring for a number of positions. EVE is busy scheduling guest instructors to host a variety of programs at the center. MacDonald and Mann look forward to connecting with more people in the area and sharing Earth Village Education with local groups. “EVE teaches students about self-reliance,” says MacDonald. “You learn how to take care of yourself in a natural environment and this transfers to other environments, such as college and work. Nature has so much to teach young people and adults,” he concludes.