We’re proud to honor the 2017 Breaking Barriers Award winner Jess Westbrook, founder of The Mayfly Project, a mentoring program for children in foster care.
Jess started fishing when he was eight years old, but it was not until three years ago that it took on new importance.
In 2014, Jess and his wife Lauren’s son, Kase, was born. Soon after, Jess started experiencing intense anxiety attacks, which he had never had before. In a six-month period, he lost 30 lbs., was missing work frequently, and distancing himself from loved ones. “A friend that I admired kept getting me out on the river and I found that when I was on the river I forgot about everything but fishing,” explained Jess. All his worries and anxious thoughts seemed to disappear as soon as he stepped into the water. “When we are fly fishing we are so concentrated on casting, mending, presenting good drifts, etc., that we forget about everything else around us.”
During this time, Jess was introduced to mentoring children in foster care through an organization at church. The timing was perfect. He was looking for a way to give back to the community through fly-fishing, a sport that had helped him over some very tough hurdles.
“It broke my heart knowing that my son was going to grow up in a loving home with parents that would support him no matter what and these kids in foster care did not have that. It’s hard enough growing up, much less growing up without loving parents.” He continued, “They did not choose this path. Someone else’s action brought them to where they are.”
Jess realized that not only could fly fishing help these children’s lives, but it would be an opportunity for them to get out on an adventure, which is something they don’t often get to experience.
Jess and Lauren partnered with Kaitlin Barnhart in Idaho in 2016, who was taking children in foster care fly fishing as well, and found they had almost the exact same beliefs in why fly fishing is so important for foster children. “During a most chaotic time in their lives, foster children could find an anchor in the outdoors and find home rivers even when they don’t feel like they have a home,” Jess explained with deep empathy.
Participants in The Mayfly Project are guided through five sessions called “stages”, just like the life cycle of a Mayfly. Within these stages, the children learn line management, casting techniques, knot tying, some entomology, river safety, mending tactics, hook setting, catch and release tactics, and the value of conservation.
At the end of the five stages the child is given his or her very own fly rod, reel, pack, fly box, flies, tippet, indicators, and more. “Our hope is for the child to continue to pursue fly fishing and to have an entry point to the outdoors,” said Jess. Each project is unique and may contain more or fewer stages, but the goal is to provide a well-rounded and safe fly-fishing experience for children in foster care.
“Fly fishing has had a huge impact on my life, and every mentor we talk with has a story about how fly fishing either changed their life, or they use it on a regular basis to improve their lives,” said Jess.
In the short span of a year, The Mayfly Project became an official nonprofit and in 2016 mentored 25 kids from two states. This year, the number is set to double, with 50 foster kids from 8 states experiencing an exciting fly-fishing adventure. In 2018, a goal has been set to take at least 5 foster children to Alaska for a week.
The Mayfly Project is also bringing important awareness and mentoring opportunities to these “forgotten” children. “We have found that some people have wanted to work with this population but have not known how to start the process. We are raising awareness of not only the number of children in foster care (400,000) but also of the fact that these children are worth our time and persistence in jumping through the hoops to get them out fishing,” Jess explained.
“Our hope,” shared Jess, “is to get these kids out on the water for a fun time, and for that day they will only be thinking about how to cast and mend, and eventually they will learn that the outdoors is a place of refuge for them, and is available to them throughout their lives.”