Benton man develops Mayfly Project to teach fly-fishing to foster children

Lisa Lakey Published August 7, 2016 at 12:00 a.m.
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Jess and Laura Westbrook are shown on a fishing trip to Alaska, where Jess said he first got the idea of giving back to others through fly-fishing.

Some people may have never heard of a mayfly. Or maybe they’ve known the insect as the fishfly or shadfly.

“Mayflies are a large part of a fly fisherman’s life,” said Jess Westbrook, a Benton native. “There are tons of different species located all over the U.S., and we tie flies to mimic the different stages of a mayfly’s life cycle.”

This small insect has become the namesake of Westbrook’s mentoring program, The Mayfly Project. The program pairs foster children with experienced fly fishers, who spend six months teaching the children the ins and outs of fly-fishing over five sessions.

“Our program is based on the mayfly life cycle,” Westbrook said. “The kids go through different stages. Each stage is different and has its own rewards. These sessions, or stages, include fly-tying lessons, fly-casting instructions and fishing outings. The fifth and final session, the kids and mentor go out for a daylong fishing trip. We want to make this last session a big deal.”

For their last session with their mentor, children are given everything they need to continue fishing on their own — a fly rod, a reel, a fly box, a fishing pack, nippers and, of course, flies.

A longtime fly fisherman, Westbrook spent time as an Alaska fishing guide while he was in college. He called the experience life-changing, and after college, wherever he went, he always had the comfort of his fly rod, he said. But the idea for the Mayfly Project came to him in 2014 after he started the mentoring role of a lifetime — becoming a father.

“With my dad as my teacher and mentor, I spent weeks every summer chasing stocker rainbow trout in Roaring River, Missouri,” he said. “I knew that I wanted to give back using fly-fishing. There were a lot of sleepless nights thinking how I could give back. In 2014, our son, Kase, was born, and I soon realized that I had a heart for foster children. That’s when the idea of The Mayfly Project was born.”

Westbrook and his wife, Laura, started working with foster children right away, taking them fishing when the couple had free time. In December 2015, they established their program as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and started seeking mentors. Ever since, word about The Mayfly Project has spread.

“We are receiving emails almost daily from possible supporters and volunteers,” Westbrook said. “Right now, we have four mentors in Arkansas and two in Idaho. Currently, we are in the process of getting 11 more volunteers ready to go from all over the U.S. — Pennsylvania, Wyoming, South Dakota and Maryland. Believe it or not, I have had to tell people from South Africa and the United Kingdom that I just didn’t think we were ready to venture overseas.”

Westbrook said the long-term goal is to see foster children served by The Mayfly Project in all 50 states, but at least in 10 states by summer 2018. And he has plans to dig a bit deeper into his own fly-fishing roots by offering a week-long fishing camp for foster children in Alaska.

While all of this might seem like big dreams for Westbrook, he’s already a successful multitasker. Alongside his main roles of husband, father and now mentor, he also works a day job. Westbrook is the controller at BR McGinty Mechanical Contractors and also handles the business side of Nushagak Paradise Lodge in Dillingham, Alaska, as the general manager.

He also admits that none of this would be possible without the support of Laura, his parents and a seemingly endless stream of sponsors, including Nativ (who outfits the children in the program, along with adding The Mayfly Project to the company’s Kind Collection), Kroger, Smithfly, Adipose Boatworks, Flyvines and Bass Pro Shop. Then there are the kids who keep reminding him of why he and Laura do what they do.

“I had one child ask if he could call me Dad,” Westbrook said. “Try not tearing up after that. One kid was screaming at the top of his lungs to Laura, who was standing on the bank, ‘Look at this fish, Mrs. Laura!’ And he kept saying, ‘Man, I am good at this.’ We recently had a cookout with some kids, which was supposed to last from 4 to 6. At this cookout, we were teaching kids how to tie flies, and at 7:30, we finally had to tell them we couldn’t tie anymore because we needed to go home to get Kase to bed. They just couldn’t get enough of it.”

And of course, the best stories come from the foster children themselves. Westbrook was sent a quote from a 14-year-old in foster care in Idaho who had been mentored by a Mayfly Project mentor.

“What we want is someone to just get us out for a bit,” the child said, “to not ask us a million questions about why we are in foster care or what has happened to us, but to just get us away from it all. Since I’ve been fly-fishing with my mentor, I found I really love the times we get to go on an adventure. I get to leave where I am at all the time and just go explore. We usually end up with a funny story, and I come back feeling a bit lighter.”

It isn’t just the kids who are learning through The Mayfly Project. Westbrook said his original perspective has changed quite a bit, and at the end of the day, he remembers it really is just about the kids and time well spent.

“At first, I was really focused on how many fish the kid caught,” he said. “When I’m fishing, I’m not worried about the amount of fish caught; I focus on just being outside and having a good time. I soon realized the kids are the same way. They just enjoy getting out, forgetting about day-to-day problems and having a good time. I hope that in mentoring these kids, they will find the same comfort in a fly rod that I did while traveling. No matter where life or the foster system takes them, they will always have their fly rod.”