For this installment of “Nonprofit of the Month,” we talked with the folks at The Mayfly Project. Using fly fishing, The Mayfly Project mentors American foster children, with the hope that fly fishing can give these kids positive outdoor experiences. Follow along to learn more about what The Mayfly Project does!
Flylords: If you had to summarize The Mayfly Project in a sentence or two, what would you say?
TMP: The Mayfly Project mentors children in foster care via the sport of fly fishing. We connect youth to the outdoors, teach them about the value of conservation efforts, and provide fun during a most chaotic time in their lives.
Flylords: Care to tell us how the Mayfly Project started?
TMP: The Mayfly Project (TMP) was founded by Jess and Laura Westbrook in Little Rock, Arkansas in 2015. Jess learned about mentoring children in foster care during church one day and decided fly fishing would be the best tool to help them cope with their difficult lives and to provide support. They were planning to keep this program local to Arkansas until they met Kaitlin Barnhart.
Around the same time TMP was founded, Kaitlin, of Sandpoint, Idaho was taking children in foster care fly fishing and networking to bring more awareness of the mental health benefits of fly fishing for foster children specifically. Kaitlin saw Andrea Larko’s design that Jess had her create for TMP and she immediately reached out to Jess. After many hours on the phone, Jess and Kaitlin decided together that with Jess’s background in finance and Kaitlin’s background in mental health, they could create a national nonprofit that would serve children in foster care across the country. The program design quickly emerged, with input from environmental scientists, case workers, mentoring programs, and the fly fishing community.
Flylords: Tell us a little bit about America’s foster care system. How can fly fishing help these children?
TMP: The American foster care system is overwhelmed with children who need stable foster homes and adoptive homes. The system meets the basic needs of the children in foster care, but offers little opportunity for fun experiences or outdoor opportunities to foster children. Because the children are moved around so frequently, and well protected by the state, they don’t often get to participate in sports teams or activities where they can feel like a “normal” child. The Mayfly Project meets the children where they are at—we make sure that if a child starts a project, they get to finish it. We provide a 1:1 mentor ratio because we know that the children thrive with the attention and care provided by our mentors. Fly fishing is often prescribed for those who are finding ways to manage PTSD and anxiety symptoms, and children in foster care often have had traumatic experiences they need extra support to manage and overcome. Beyond the healing properties of fly fishing and time with helpful mentors, foster children build self-confidence through river adventures and are thrilled to join in a cycle of healing the environment through TMP’s Conservation Initiative.
Flylords: Can you describe your average program or experience for foster care children? What are the ‘stages’?
TMP: A project consists of a minimum of 5 outings, scheduled out every 2-3 weeks. The program is designed to build upon the sessions and the stages are named after the life cycle of the Mayfly. The first outing the mentees learn about tying knots, how to set up a fly rod, and how to tie flies. The second outing they learn the basics of casting, setting the hook, and catch and release tactics. We will start children on a pond at this stage and they have an opportunity to catch warm water fish. The last three outings are designed around fishing rivers and learning about trout, depending on the location of the project. Mentees learn about protecting against invasive species and cleaning up the rivers during these phases as well. At the final outing, the children receive all of their own gear to continue to pursue fly fishing—everything from a brand-new fly rod to a fly bag filled with goodies.
Flylords: Are some activities more effective than others?
TMP: We have a new curriculum that we use as a tool throughout the project; it details everything the mentees need to know about fly fishing, the mental health benefits of fly fishing, and about taking care of the environment. We also have an invasive species identification game and a button incentive program, where the mentees are rewarded for their efforts to learn and participate in our conservation initiative. Every child is different and comes to TMP with various experience levels with time outdoors—some mentees have never fished before or even been to a river, so its crucial we meet them where they are at and educate them while making the project as safe and fun as possible for them.
Flylords: What is the end goal of these programs?
TMP: The end goal of our project is for the children we mentor to be self-sufficient with fly fishing and to understand that the public lands and outdoor spaces are places they can go to find mental rest. The children are able to tie their own knots, set up their own rods, match the hatch with the flies they choose, and safely catch and release fish. Beyond the ability to fish, our mentees learn about why we take care of the ecosystems we are privileged to enjoy, and also why time outdoors is beneficial to them.
Flylords: Can you tell us about some impactful stories about Mayfly project participants
TMP: We have so many success stories from kids who found great value from our projects, but some of our favorite stories are from kids who didn’t actually want to participate. They came to the project with either mixed feelings about fishing, or so angry they just didn’t want to be around anyone. But after the initial outing, they immediately bought in to what we were providing them. Once the child realizes that fly fishing can be their ‘thing’, something that makes them feel good about their accomplishments, they are sold on it. We have had foster children near the end line of aging out of the system and since participating in The Mayfly Project they are found running to the river or lake to fly fish after work or school.
One child that sticks out in my mind was one of the ones reluctant to participate at first. He was the last one out of the van and rolled his eyes when the lead mentor was giving instructions. But he quickly turned into a completely different kid when he started to learn that casting was something he was good at. By the third outing, this child was running out of the group home van to get to us, and would out-fish every other mentee at the outings. On our last outing, he brought his dad (they had a supervised visit), and when his dad was not around he said, “Fly fishing has changed my life and made me feel peaceful, I think my dad could really use fly fishing too in his life.” We are honored to have these experiences and to work with such a unique population.
Flylords: How many children has the Mayfly Project mentored? Likewise, how many states is the Mayfly Project active in?
TMP: We have mentored 362 children and plan to mentor close to 500 by 2020. We have projects in 24 states and will be in 28 states by 2020, with some states having a multitude of projects as well. We currently have 268 mentors across the country. Click on this link to check out some of our talented mentors!
Flylords: Describe the mentor-selection process:
TMP: We assign lead mentors to our projects, after they go through an extensive interview and training process. Mentors apply for our projects through our Take Action (ADD LINK) section on our website. We do a phone interview with each mentor, check their references, and they have an extensive background check conducted. Each mentor is added to the team after approved by our lead mentors and given our training materials. Our mentors understand the need for a solid commitment because we’re working with a population that is not only fragile, but needs people to show up for them. We have a policy that we never cancel a project outing, so if for some reason a bunch of mentors can’t make it, we’ll drive long hours to fill the gap. We have the best mentors on our teams and are thrilled to have that number increasing. This project truly does take a village!
Flylords: Any new projects in the works?
TMP: In 2019 we’ve launched, or are getting ready to launch in these states: California, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia. In 2020 we plan to add Alaska, Ohio, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Maine, as well as a few new projects in states already established.
Flylords:How can other fly fishermen get involved? Granted, not everyone can devote as much time as others, are there other ways to help further the Mayfly Project?
TMP: We are always looking for mentors, gear donations, and support sharing our success with the world. As we are building projects we are in need of financial contributions, grant opportunities, and private donors who want to team up with us to help us change the lives of children who need it most. We truly believe in the term #flyfishingfamily and are thankful to have support in many forms! To learn how to get involved or help, be sure to contact us and check at our giving page!
This interview was conducted by Flylords’ Conservation Editor, Will Poston