Jess Westbrook’s panic attacks began with the birth of his son three years ago. He felt overwhelmed by a lack of sleep and worried about his son’s future.
His anxiety relief came in an unlikely place. A friend persisted in taking him fly fishing, encouraging Westbrook to stick to a lifelong passion.
“I didn’t want to fish, but as soon as I stepped into the stream, everything went away,” Westbrook said.
The Benton, Arkansas, native gives foster youth this same opportunity for relief as founder of the Mayfly Project.
With mentors in six states – Arkansas, Idaho, Nebraska, Colorado, North Carolina and South Carolina – the program instructs youth from group homes on the basics of the sport, culminating in at least one full-day river outing. Youth keep all the gear they need to continue the practice, including rod, reel, line and flies.
Westbrook, by day the controller of a heating and air conditioning company, spent childhood summers fishing trout streams with his father in Missouri and summered as a fishing guide in Alaska during college. When traveling for work as an auditor early in his career, he took his rod with him, feeling a sense of home away from home while on a river.
He always knew he wanted to give back through fishing.
He discovered that outlet at church, connecting – along with his wife, Laura – to local foster youth.
“As a new father, I learned how much you can love someone, how much you can even love kids who aren’t your own,” said Westbrook.
Simultaneously Kaitlin Barnhart of Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, was on a similar journey.
In college, she worked transporting foster kids to and from appointments.
“A lot of the times I’d take them just to throw rocks [in a stream],” said Barnhart, “because I feel like nature can be a time where they can relax and not be defined by where they’re at.”
Barnhart ventured to Alaska after college to work at a lodge and got hooked on fly fishing in, coincidentally, the same village where Westbrook worked as a guide, only a year apart.
“I realized [the river is] where I go for my mental health breaks, to find time in nature. But also to always be learning a skill that kind of takes your brain away from everything else that’s going on in your life.”
Building from her professional background in children’s mental health, Barnhart began taking Idaho foster youth fly fishing. She, too, saw the benefits.
“When you’re fishing you can’t really be thinking about problems or figure anything out,” Barnhart said. “You always have to be so focused on the fishing.”
Barnhart and Westbrook were connected after Barnhart noticed a logo artist Andrea Larko had designed for Westbrook’s Mayfly Project.
“That’s beautiful, what’s it for?” Barnhart asked of Larko on Facebook where she saw the logo.
The depiction of the mayfly, which is most commonly eaten by trout and imitated as fishing lures, was the signature image for the Mayfly Project and Larko happily connected Barnhart and Westbrook. They joined forces with the goal of growing the impact of their collective work.
The Mayfly Project recruits mentors, often fly fishing enthusiasts who find out about the program through social media streams.
Barnhart and Westbrook then encourage them to build a local team, help them connect with nearby group homes and support them with training, background checks and gear.
Westbrook prioritizes taking care of mentors.
“Without happy mentors, there can be no mentoring. If a mentor says they need something, I find a way to take care of it,” said Westbrook. The program finds sponsors to donate food, makes sure mentors on overnight trips stay in nice lodges and secures supplies.
Westbrook recently received the Breaking Barriers Award from the Orvis Company, a national fly-fishing outfitter. According to the Orvis website, the award “honors an individual who has gone above and beyond to bring new blood into the sport by breaking down barriers and introducing new audiences to the sport of fly fishing.”
“I was super surprised” to get the award, Westbrook said. He hopes the exposure will draw more attention to the needs of foster youth, an area that Barnhart concentrates on enhancing.
Working with caseworkers in three states, Barnhart is building out an online training curriculum that will provide mentors with critical information about trauma-informed care and the challenges of working with children with difficult backgrounds of abuse, neglect and trauma.
“Because we’re dealing with kids that have attachment disorders and things like that, we want to make sure [mentors] know what to say and what not to say, just to make sure the relationship is correct, so we can have the most impact on the kids [without] them becoming dependent on us either,” Barnhart said.
Ultimately, the program resonates with participants because youth get a chance to be themselves.
“One girl I worked with,” Barnhart said, “sent me a message and said how much she looks forward to our outings together just to get away, and that she’s not being treated like a foster kid . . . That’s what she looks forward to the most, not being a foster kid but just able to be a kid outside.”
The program currently has 53 mentors enrolled, and will work with at least 50 children in foster care this year across 19 project sites, including expansion into Washington and Wyoming. Through a partnership with Project Zero, an Arkansas coalition with the goal of raising awareness about adoption and finding a permanent family for every waiting child in the state’s foster care system, video crews have begun trailing youth on fishing trips.
And next year, the Mayfly Project will take its first group to Alaska.
“It’s just an awesome place for foster kids, specifically because, I think, for one, they get this amazing experience to be in this beautiful place, but it’s also a place for them to really get over some fears. You’re flying in float planes, you’re fishing around bears,” Barnhart said.
Barnhart believes the youth gain much more than fishing techniques.
“It will give them a perspective of themselves I don’t think they otherwise would have seen,” Barnhart said. “They’re challenged to face their fears up there. But when you come back, you feel like you’re on top of the world. So for self-esteem and life-long value, I think it’s pretty cool for kids.”
Barnhart hopes the experience of fly fishing stays with children.
“Our goal is for them to build a relationship with fly fishing and the outdoors because wherever you go in life and wherever you’re at, the outdoors is there for you.”
This past Wednesday, the Westbrooks welcomed the birth of daughter Kyle Illiann. Her middle name inspired by the Alaska river Jess guided on in college, both Jess and Laura will continue to fly fish together with Kyle and son, Kase, strapped in packs to their backs.
“While life with anxiety will never be the same as life without anxiety,” said Jess Westbrook, “I am so glad I have it and I believe my anxiety was part of a greater plan. I am able to channel my anxiety into fly fishing, the Mayfly Project and foster children.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Westbrook had given up fishing after the birth of his son. Westbrook struggled to get out fishing, but continued to do so. The story has also been revised to reflect the cause of his anxiety.
Carl Finer is a freelance writer focusing on education, community development, running, and child welfare.