Natural Mentors: Virgin Islands Youth Heritage Exchange Farm Excursions

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Natural Mentors: Virgin Islands Youth Heritage Exchange Farm Excursions

Frederiksted, United States
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Natural Mentors (NM) facilitates cultural exchange and nature awareness through a youth excursion certification program and volunteer-vacation experiences for traveling groups from abroad. It connects local elder culture-bearers with youth leaders, youth with other youth, and local participants with traveling groups. Departing from the traditional tourism model, where the needs of the tourist come first, NM first focuses on relevant needs of the host population's cultural survival through hands-on workshops that center on traditional nature-based lifestyle skills, organic food production, and cultural mentoring. Second, it is structured to provide an interactive element for visitors ...

About You
Contact Information


First name


Last name


Your job title

Program Director

Name of your organization

Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute

Organization type

Private Eco-Cultural-Agricultural Educational Institution

Annual budget/currency


Mailing address

PO Box 1007, Frederiksted, USVI 00841

Telephone number


Postal/Zip Code


Email address
Alternative email address
Your idea
This will be the address used to plot your entry on the map.
Street Address

Creque Dam Road




United States Virgin Islands

Postal/Zip Code


Geotourism Challenge Addressed by Entrant

Quality of tourist experience and educational benefit to tourists , Quality of benefit to residents for the destination .

Organization size

Small (1 to 100 employees)

Indicate sector in which you principally work

Tourism-related business

Year innovation began


Indicate sector in which you principally work

History, Living culture, Nature, Culinary or agritourism, Education, General destination stewardship/management.

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What is the goal of your innovation? Please describe in one sentence the kind of impact, change, or reform your approach is intended to achieve.

Natural Mentors was created to spark a heritage renaissance among the youth leaders of Virgin Islands with nature-based skills of survival, organic food production, and cultural mentoring.

Please write an overview of your project. Include how your approach supports or embodies geotourism or destination stewardship. This text will appear when people scroll over the icon for your entry on the map located on the competition homepage.

Natural Mentors (NM) facilitates cultural exchange and nature awareness through a youth excursion certification program and volunteer-vacation experiences for traveling groups from abroad. It connects local elder culture-bearers with youth leaders, youth with other youth, and local participants with traveling groups. Departing from the traditional tourism model, where the needs of the tourist come first, NM first focuses on relevant needs of the host population's cultural survival through hands-on workshops that center on traditional nature-based lifestyle skills, organic food production, and cultural mentoring. Second, it is structured to provide an interactive element for visitors where they can take part in this cultural mentoring process. While NM facilitates a generational torch-passing in useful life skills (like how to grow your own organic food), it also teaches arts, crafts, and the art of cultural interpretation that can provide a basis for entrepreneurial career development. For visiting groups, it engages with a sense of local and global humanity, where through learning how to meet basic needs one is able to see cross-cultural similarities (organic food growing techniques are remarkably similar), and local identifiers that make us unique (how cultural geography defines our cuisine). The results are hand-held, colorful, and full of flavor.

Explain in detail why your approach is innovative

Natural Mentors is innovative because it focuses on how tourism product development can go beyond direct benefits (i.e., jobs, service contracts, and so on) for local communities and provide instruction of practical skill sets to have basic needs such as food, medicine, and emergency preparedness. These skills are critical to small islands, which also face extreme pressures from tourism development. Over two-thirds of the worlds small islands are near the equator and have extremely diverse and threatened ecosystems, such as coral reefs. They also face cyclone and climate change threats, such as the 1989 hurricane Hugo, which disrupted power service in the Virgin Islands for up to six months. With largely import economies (99% of food is currently imported after it was a major export commodity in the 1950s), food security and psychological development to a place of confidence in survival are paramount issues. However, careful study of the host populations in Caribbean islands reveals a heritage of self-reliance and survival through culturally relevant life ways. On one hand, we use the economy of tourism to make this cultural mentoring possible, and on the other we use the island as a small-scale case of inspiration to travelers to the needs and possibilities that exist on a global scale.

Describe the degree of success you have had to date. How do you measure, both quantitatively and qualitatively, the impact on sustainability or enhancement of local culture, environment, heritage, or aesthetics? How has it transformed or contributed to the power of place or demonstrated the sustainability of tourism? How does your approach minimize negative impacts?

As a business, we use a Triple Bottom Line system of sustainability: 1) Environmental, 2) Economic, and 3) Cultural.

First, we are a USDA certified organic farm (the first and currently only in the Virgin Islands). We use our site for education and host over 4500 educational visitors locally a year. Over 600 of those are repeat students in NM. We share a lot and learn from our visitors too, in the age old art of farm conversation. We also host college credit farming courses on aspects from solar power to slow food cooking. We offer community "Slow Down" dinners, led by chefs Dan Glenn and Keith Weitzman, that highlight over 90% local ingredients. This is powerful on an island where 99% of the food is imported.

Environmentally, we are Green Globe Certified, and over better than Baseline Level in their "EarthCheck" monitoring program every environmental and cultural indicator and better than "Best Practice" in more than half. We were nominated by US Congresswoman Donna M. Christensen for the 2009 EPA Environmental Quality Award. We were awarded a $10,000 grant teach environmental education to VI youths achieved by NM.

Listen to the Natural Mentors themselves:

"Russell and Menelik showed us that survival is much easier with a friend. They were able to make a fire on their own, but when they worked together it was much easier. Menelik was always there to help us. Russell told us that no one can become an expert in one day. I learnt that over-confidence can be just as bad as no confidence." -Tytan Pascali

"The Caribbean Bush Skills Adventure ... helped our minds soar even more." -Olga T.Martinez

"I am very thankful because you all taught us skills that will be with us for the rest of our lives." -Samone Simon

"If you are wondering which one of the students I am, I am the one who was drumming and singing." -Chris 'C4' Sealey

In what ways are local residents actively involved in your work, including participation and community input? How has the community responded to or benefited from your approach?

The NM model is an empty shell without local participation. They are primarily engaged as the main teachers and students in the program. It is the centerpiece of the tourism product, which is an extra benefit to a program that is primarily designed to benefit the local community. We find our teachers through the Virgin Island Network of Environmental Educators (VINE), by word of mouth, and from street vendors with amazing stories and abilities.
Local organizations, public and private schools, and the VI Department of Tourism (VIDOT) combine to support NM. Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism is a 501c3 that collaborates on training programs and tours. The VIDOT coordinates field trips with local schools in their "My Community" program meant to better the quality of life through tourism. The Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands provides funding for portions of the program, and matches $10,000 of expenditures for teaching resources and student meals.

How does your program promote traveler enthusiasm, satisfaction, and engagement with the locale?

The NM program provides a glimpse of the local character of the island in a pure natural environment. Nature and culture dominate the landscape instead of roads and televisions. In a sense, the farm valley is a world of its own, a paradise within paradise, where visitors can stay for most of their trip (in between trips to the beach of course) and have the nature and culture come to them verses driving all over the island to find it. We encourage a mix for our visitors, but there is plenty here to keep groups busy and engaged while immersed in a learning environment. We also connect visitors with guides here who can lead them on island excursions.

Describe how your work helps travelers and local residents better understand the value of the area's cultural and natural heritage, and educates them on local environmental issues.

In addition to the information above, VISFI funds research into the Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Virgin Islands and assists the National Park Service study in the St. Croix National Heritage Area study. Along with the University of Georgia, over 9 community workshops have been held in community tourism planning, which guided the formal development of the Natural Mentors program. This is the topic of Nate Olive's PhD dissertation research, into models of sustainable tourism development for small island states that have complex heritages. This study is called "Islands without Pyramids," and looks at how local heritage can be better understood through participatory research and how it can be used in product development. The study is still seeking funding for the tourism survey component, which will develop Geotourism typologies for the Virgin Islands for the benefit of local providers and stakeholders.

How is your initiative currently financed? If available, provide information on your finances and organization that could help others. Please list: Annual budget, annual revenue generated, size of part-time, full-time and volunteer staff.

Natural Mentors is financed through educational tourism, including farm retreats and tours, the sale of organic food, and grants from local community organizations. A critical component is the amount of volunteer hours that are given by some local instructors, farm interns and apprentices, the VIDOT, CHANT, local elders, leaders, and Natural Mentors themselves. For example, while we sometimes cover all the food expenses for a day, other times the Natural Mentors have brought from home their own cultural dishes they made with their parents. We have an estimate of 90 volunteer hours a week on the program, and it runs about 20 weeks a year. NM has an annual budget of $92,000, which is paid for out of farm income that is enhanced by the NM program, and our grant funding. We have 5 full time staff, 2 of which are local residents. We have over 90 volunteers in a year, 15 paid instructors, 5 volunteer instructors, and part-time administrative staff.

Is your initiative financially and organizationally sustainable? If not, what is required to make it so? Is there a potential demand for your innovation?

Yes, it is sustainable, but it would be better suited for an actual resort to generate more profit since VISFI is not a hotel and has very limited private retreat space. We are helping such a resort in Jamaica develop a farming aspect and the community aspect of NM. We have various requests for retro-fitting resorts, but feel that it best works in an entire plan of a place from the beginning since every design detail is critically important to maintaining a natural feel. We require more staff and pilot research funding to expand the program to more days per year and more locations.

What are the main barriers you encounter in managing, implementing, or replicating your innovation? What barriers keep your program from having greater impact?

The main barriers include the limited resources we have and are able to generate without greater visitor capacity in both infrastructure development and transportation. The high cost of commuting on the island prevents may youth from being able to visit. We are working an initiative to develop a biodiesel transport service with a local taxi service but lack the initial start-up costs. Also, information services about our tourism offerings are not in the mainstream tourism outlets and it is difficult to target Geotourists without knowing our visitor profiles to the islands.

What is your plan to expand or further develop your approach? Please indicate where/how you would like to grow or enhance your innovation, or have others do so.

We are in the process of finalizing the certification process in the NM program. We are also working on the alternative transportation initiative. We are working with UGA to conduct the VI Geotourism study, but they are still seeking funding. We would like to consult on other agriculturally related heritage projects worldwide, especially in the Caribbean region. We also are working with local partners to help develop a Geotourism Map Guide for the Virgin Islands.

The Story
What is the origin of your innovation? Tell the Changemakers and media communities what prompted you to start this initiative.

The Natural Mentors innovation is a working example of how ancient knowledge can be used in modern applications to provide sustainable development solutions for the modern and future society. This program is a co-created project by senior staff of the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute (VISFI). VISFI founder and Executive Director Ben Jones III created the model facility for the program, which includes a working Certified Organic and Green Globe farm. VISFI Program Director Nate Olive created the Natural Mentors program concept, as a way of interpreting the work of Jones, which has received international attention as a place of cultural, environmental, and economic sustainability. Together the duo teamed with cultural mentors around the world and studied native life ways from basic survival to food production to reach a better understanding of the complex heritage of the Virgin Islands. The area has undergone tremendous population shifts in the past 600 years from the displacement of native cultures in pre-columbian times (the Carib and the Taino conflict) to the migrations of colonials, Africans, East Indians, and the seven flags that have flown over the Virgin Islands since. With a highly complex heritage, the story of Virgin Islands is extensive and difficult to distill, especially for a singular identity to be promoted in authentic tourism.

Therefore, Jones and Olive have chosen food to serve as a centerpiece at the table where identity is the discourse. As a working farm, VISFI showcases all-organic agricultural techniques from Taino "conucos" (large planting mounds for root crops) to migratory cultivars like the East Indian tamarind (a school child's favorite), St. Croix's own unique breed of "Senepol" cattle, and the prominent grafted mango varieties that immerse the caribbean summer in salty sweetness. Also, the many native wild plants that grow are featured for nutrition but also their roles in providing other basic necessities, such as materials for rope making, fire making, shelter building, clothing, water carriage, food processing, and medicinal applications. Jones and Olive saw the study of these arts and crafts as a way to explore functionally the heritage of the Virgin Islands, in an appealing way that unfolds the complex map of culture in the Caribbean. As Olive states, "History is dead. Heritage is alive." The taste of culture speaks more in your mouth than in your ears, as does the dirt in your hands, and the fruit on your tongue.

Since Jones and Olive are not Virgin Islanders by birth, they see their role simply as facilitators of cultural mentoring, and have recruited a host of local elders and adult leaders to conduct the Natural Mentors cultural exchange events and activities. They see that the greatest benefit they can offer is structure for cultural mentoring to take place, including a world-class facility that is completely off-grid and sustainable with models of closed-loop ecological life-support systems and a program that provides access to both locals and travelers. This approach is applicable to other areas, as an empty structure to be filled with natural and cultural identity.

Together as co-creators, Jones and Olive realized that youth populations are the most critical to reach to draw out and preserve the heritage of the islands, which is being threatened by globalizing homogenization, the "brain-drain" effect (where the most gifted students must look elsewhere for educational and career opportunities), video games, and crime. Since this project is in a developing area, youth leaders are critical to cultivate so that future of place is directed towards a more sustainable and identifiable future.

As a business, this model benefits VISFI as the global volunteer tourism market expands exponentially. This provides unique experiences for tourist segments who can see past the facades erected for them and who seek a more interactive experiences that provide an accurate glimpse into authentic natural and cultural identity of a destination.

Jones and Olive created Natural Mentors from inspiration of their own personal quests in life. Jones had made agriculture his focal point in life where Olive had spent years traveling on foot to gather an understanding of migration and geographic transitions. Working together on the VISFI project, they sought to bridge the gap between the perceived polar opposites of "agriculturalist" and "hunter-gatherer," while creating a profitable and sustainable model of development that may serve as a model for future societies. The Natural Mentor program, based on the Native American medicine wheel, incorporates these juxtaposed modalities into a single program that helps young people climb the ladder of cognitive development (based on Maslow's Hierarchy) in a healthy manner that may inspire abundance, creativity, and joy for both local residents and visitors alike. The work of Jones and Olive is meant to bridge cultures and protect them.

Please provide a personal bio. Note this may be used in Changemakers' marketing material.

Ben Jones is a 6th generation farmer from Georgia with a vision is to create peaceful and abundant communities where people work with ancient knowledge and cutting edge bio-technologies to create solutions that build fertility for humanity’s evolution in natural ecosystems. He is engaged in eco-regenerative design, and uses Permaculture techniques to build and design farm-based communities. He is earning a Master’s Degree from Gaia University in Organizing Learning for Eco-Social Regeneration.

Nate Olive, M.A., is an intentional wanderer, author, tourism ecologist, and social advocate from Chamblee, GA. Since he witnessed gentrification in his home area as a child, he has been on a quest to preserve identity of place and people. A PhD student and award-winning scholar, he has hiked over 9,000 miles of nature trails in the past 8 years across North America in search of the essence of human identity. He studies and promotes heritage tourism development for insular small islands.

Describe some unique tourist experiences that your approach provides. Be specific; give illustrative examples.

Tourists interact with island youth while participating in farming, primitive skills, and nature awareness activities. For example, a teen summer abroad organization, Overland Summers, sends 60+ high-school service vacationers annually for multi-week farm excursions who learn alongside local youths about farming, primitive skills, nature, and mentoring. Together, they have learned how to harvest mangoes, plant seeds, cook over a "three-stone (pronounced TREE-stone)" fire in "ital" clay pots produced by ancient friction techniques, and weave natural fibers from the forest.

Adult families have stayed at VISFI and brought their children to NM daily programs (over 600 students this year), with their children learning alongside youth of the same age about herbal remedies from 7th generation African-Caribbean medicine woman Veronica Gordon. Together they practiced plant identification and their cultural uses, and how they can replace the need for some aspects of conventional medicine.

The annual Bush Skills Rendezvous event draws hundreds of visitors and local participants to learn about agroforestry, survival skills, and traditional cooking. Visitors camp or stay in cabanas while enjoying cultural campfire dances, mocko jumbie performances, chef-made meals, and daily workshops with the Natural Mentors.

What types of partnerships or professional development would be most beneficial in spreading your innovation?

We need to partner with web-based service providers that promote group volunteer travel and tap into small island development funding to hire more local instructors and expand the capacity of Natural Mentors to extend to other satellite destinations in the Eastern Caribbean and other small island states. Although The United Nations has developed a Small Island Developing State priority, we are not aware of how international resources may be made available to replicate this program structure to other areas. Business partnerships are desired to create networks of shared resources to increase professional capacity, refine program structure, and create an inter-site exchange program for VISFI programs. Also, joining the network of Gaia University through educational programs allows degree-granting work programs that use elements of the NM model.