Families Learning Together

Turtle Island Preserve: An event where lower-income families fund camps for children in need.

Families Learning Together

Funding summer camps takes money, but Turtle Island Preserve manages it by offering reduced-price tickets to their annual fundraiser. 

Deep in Appalachia lies a verdant paradise of sustainability. The brainchild of Eustace Conway, mountain man and naturalist, now serves to teach forgotten skills back to the community while protecting a pristine environment that would have otherwise become a development for the wealthy. 

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Eustace grew up in Camp Sequoia, an elite boys’ camp that his grandfather ran in the North Carolina mountains from the 1920s to 1970s. When he came of age, he wanted to follow the family tradition and start a nature preserve and heritage farm that teaches self-sufficiency. He purchased his first 105 acres in 1986 then immediately started harvesting trees to build primitive log structures. The preserve grew in rich Appalachian tradition, using materials sourced from the land. Horses drew ploughs and log carts, and the first nine structures had hand-hewn wooden shingles. Eustace purchased as much land as he could, as fast as he could, in his efforts to save as much of the undeveloped Appalachia wilderness as possible from modern development. Currently, the preserve consists of 1,000+ acres, and though Eustace would like to purchase more, the current real estate boom has made this prohibitive. 

Turtle Island Preserve creator Eustace Conway
Eustace Conway Wendy McCarty Photography

“Turtle Island” gives homage to the Native American legend of the turtle rising out of the water to support life on its back. Fueled by volunteers and the community, Turtle Island Preserve is a federally recognized nonprofit that uses a small portion of the land to conduct camps, workshops, and educational programming to give first-hand experience with the natural world. Children use the remaining wilderness to roam across untouched forest and streams during the summer camp programs.  

After a winter rest, volunteers gather around mid-March to work weekends. Official classes for adults begin in April, offering instruction in primitive and sustainability skills such as knife-making, fire-craft, and hide-tanning. Then Turtle Island Preserve opens up for larger events, starting with Families Learning Together. 

Turtle Island Preserve
Eustace teaches horse equipment Wendy McCarty Photography

On April 30th, Families Learning Together creates affordable, meaningful nature experiences for guests. The preserve focuses on limited-income populations and single-income families with many children. They offer 80% off normal pricing so these families can spend all day learning, at a reduced price.  

Desere Anderson, office manager at Turtle Island Preserve, says, “People who are typically the recipients of charity are the ones who are creating charity for others with this event. These are the people asking for scholarships and support, and through this event, they are empowered to create sponsorships.” 

Turtle Island Preserve
Wild Crafting Class Wendy McCarty Photography

During Families Learning Together, hundreds of volunteers help conduct programs and guide people as they try out blacksmithing, take buggy rides with Eustace, learn how to can vegetables, and take forestry workshops. Earnings raised that one day — from the kitchen, vendor fees, and memorabilia sales — go into the scholarship fund for summer youth camp at Turtle Island Preserve. 

Desere describes the youth camps, which are open to young people from ages 7 to 17, as a non-digital experience. For 2 weeks, kids spend time away from screens to reset their natural rhythms in a safe, nurturing environment where they can learn skills while gaining a deeper appreciation for the things they have at home. 

Turtle Island Preserve
Basket weaving at Turtle Island Preserve Wendy McCarty Photography

During the rest of the year, Turtle Island Preserve offers skills to anyone who wants a little more sustainability. Modern people, who may be intimidated by primitive skills, can walk away from classes with fresh ideas to make their lives more self-sufficient, no matter where they go in the world. Workshops for adults include blacksmithing, knife-making, spoon-carving, and hide-tanning. The “Building Skills” class teaches techniques for hand-hewn dwellings. “Woodswoman 101” allows women to build fires, explore herbs, use chainsaws, and try blacksmithing without the intimidation of topics that are typically geared toward males.  

The preserve also offers work retreats, discovery visits, and university programs to build teamwork in a natural environment away from modern distractions. 

Turtle Island Preserve
Wood working at Turtle Island Preserve Wendy McCarty Photography

Families Learning Together, and Turtle Island Preserve, rely on the volunteer program. From growing gardens and caring for animals, to preparing food in an outdoor fire-driven kitchen, the endeavors are possible because of those people who donate their work and plug in behind the scenes. 

To inquire about volunteering, attending a class, or outreach services, visit their website: turtleislandpreserve.org. Learn more about Families Learning Together, see videos about the event, and purchase tickets at turtleislandpreserve.org/families-learning-together.  

Turtle Island Preserve
Crafting Wendy McCarty Photography

Follow Turtle Island Preserve: 

Instagram: @turtleislandpreserve

Facebook: Turtle Island Preserve

YouTube channel: Turtle Island Preserve 

Senior Editor for Countryside Publications, MARISSA AMES runs a small homestead in Fallon, Nevada, where she focuses on saving and propagating rare poultry and goat breeds. She teaches homesteading skills for her local Grange chapter. Marissa and her husband, Russ, travel to Africa where they serve as agricultural advisors for the nonprofit I Am Zambia. She spends her free time eating lunch. 

Originally published in May/June 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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