Locations: Fayetteville, Arkansas
The Mayfly Project is a 501(c)(3) national organization that uses fly fishing as a catalyst to mentor and support children in foster care. The mission of The Mayfly Project is to support children in foster care through fly fishing and introduce them to their local water ecosystems, with a hope that connecting them to a rewarding hobby will provide an opportunity for foster children to have fun, build confidence, and develop a meaningful connection with the outdoors.
The Mayfly Project was founded in Arkansas in 2015, by Jess and Laura Westbrook, and the National Program was founded in 2016 when they partnered with Kaitlin Barnhart, of Idaho.
Jess Westbrook's idea to use fly fishing as a tool to support children in foster care was derived from how he used fly fishing as a therapeutic tool to manage his own anxiety. In 2014, Jess and wife Laura's son, Kase, was born. Soon after, Jess started experiencing intense anxiety attacks, which he had never experienced before. In a six-month period, he lost 30 lbs., was missing work frequently, and distancing himself from loved ones. Even though Jess had been fly fishing since he was six years old, something changed for him when a friend stepped in to help.
A friend that I admired kept getting me out on the river to fish 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 learning more about what foster children go through and that they needed the community to support them during their difficult journey, Jess said. He realized that not only could fly fishing help these children, 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 Laura started The Mayfly Project, with the plan to just take his local group of children fly fishing. He reached out to famous fly fishing artist, Andrea Larko, to have her create a logo for The Mayfly Project because Jess wanted to have a beautiful symbol they could share with their community.
It was that symbol that caught the eye of mental health professional, Kaitlin Barnhart, in North Idaho. I saw the Mayfly logo on Andrea Larko's Facebook page and asked her what it was for, because I was so drawn to it, Kaitlin said. When Andrea replied to Kaitlin, and told her it was for a guy in Arkansas taking children in foster care fly fishing, she immediately reached out to Jess because she was doing the same thing in Idaho.
Kaitlin had been taking children in foster care fly fishing since 2006, when she was using fly fishing as a way to decompress from her stressful career working for Child Protective Services, Juvenile Detention, and residential treatment with foster children. Once Kaitlin realized how beneficial fly fishing was for foster children specifically, it became her mission to lead this population to the rivers. I realized that not only did fly fishing provide mental rest, it was empowering the children I worked with. They were proud of themselves and felt good about what they were accomplishing, which is so important for this population specifically, Kaitlin said.
In 2016, after many long distance phone calls and hours spent hashing through the possibilities of reaching more children in foster care across the USA, Jess and Laura partnered with Kaitlin and created the National TMP Program. With Jess's background in business and finance, Laura's background as a lawyer, Kaitlin's background in mental health and youth leadership, their serious fly fishing addictions, amazing family, and new essential team members and lead mentors, The Mayfly Project is now booming across the USA.
Bradley out of Prairie Grove and Tyler out of Fayetteville brought The Mayfly project to NWA in 2020. "We had never met prior to this. Soon others jumped in and now we have ourselves one awesome crew! None of us really new each other in the beginning which was crazy! We have all become friends and teammates."
The Mayfly Project is committed to our 1:1 mentor ratio when working with children in foster care because we know they value time with their mentor, and it's the most efficient way to teach fly fishing. The memories made by celebrating successes, working through wind knots together, and giving high fives after letting go of a fish, all surmount to essential experiences for our mentees.
All mentors will need to go through background checks to ensure the safety of the children.
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