“Everyone Needs an Escape”: How One Organization Uses Fly Fishing to Mentor Foster Children
Nearly 30,000 foster children age out of the system each year and are left to fend for themselves.
There were approximately 440,000 children in the U.S. foster care system in 2019. Every year nearly 30,000 of those children age out of the system and are left to fend for themselves without a support network in place.
Those in foster care are forced on a daily basis to confront terrifying uncertainties most will never begin to grasp. Looming over their heads are glaring statistics that say within four years of aging out of system, 70 percent will be on government assistance, 25 percent will have dropped out of high school, and less than 12 percent will earn a college degree.
But under the mentorship of Mayfly Project volunteers, for at least a couple hours each day, those in foster care are able to keep their minds focused on one thing and one alone: reeling in that next fish.
The program that started a few years ago in Arkansas as a small initiative has since evolved into one with state chapters, or “Projects,” all over the country, pairing adult mentors with children to learn fly fishing in a safe and supportive environment.
“Everyone needs an escape,” Mayfly Project co-founder Jess Westbrook says. “For me, my escape is fly fishing. During some of the most trying times of my adult life I have used a fly rod as a coping mechanism. The river is a place where I can immerse myself in God’s creation and forget about everything but mending.”
Westbrook’s launch of the Mayfly Project was indeed borne out of using fishing as his own form of therapy.
Crippling anxiety attacks eventually gave rise to drastic weight loss, work absences, and disconnecting from loved ones. It wasn’t until a friend suggested the familiar activity of fly fishing that Westbrook felt a change.
“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,” Westbrook says on the Mayfly Project website.
“When we are fly fishing we are so concentrated on casting, mending, presenting good drifts, etc., that we forget about everything else around us.”
Through connections in his church Westbrook was eventually put in contact with representatives from a local foster care.
“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,” he says.
Mentoring using his own coping mechanism was a natural fit, and the Mayfly Project was created soon after.
As part of the program mentors and mentees are paired for five fishing sessions, according to the organization’s homepage. Prior to each rotation, children are issued a curriculum that focuses on everything from fishing safety to character building. Once the fifth session is complete, each child is given the gear necessary to continue their newfound hobby.
This approach has helped the Mayfly Project flourish. The organization now operates with Projects in 25 states, and is showing no sign of slowing down.
As the lead caseworker in the Los Angeles Project, Douglas Rohrer has seen fly fishing provide kids with the chance to finally let their guards down and discover their true capacity for optimism and excitement.
“In the end, the objective of our efforts is not really to pull fish from the water but instead to elevate the condition of the foster children with whom we have the privilege of serving,” Rohrer says.
“Through the simple act of fly fishing the principles of preparation, patience, focus, perseverance, consistency, conservation, and grace take on new purpose and each outing the possibility of a new adventure, where the reward is life skills and fond memories that otherwise may have slipped by just like that trout had we not taken a chance, picked up a rod, and made that first cast.”
In addition to fishing, mentors instill values by teaching children about the conservation of local fisheries and ecosystems, proper fish handling, catch-and-release techniques, and gear hygiene.
In fact, every Project has a designated conservation mentor whose role it is to provide instruction on the aforementioned practices in a way that develops not only a deeper connection between the children and their environment, but a desire to actively protect the outdoors as well.
The hands-on, adventurous mentor approach has yielded results that have exceeded all expectations.
“I couldn’t believe the change in behavior and spirit prior to our outing with (The Mayfly Project) and then post-outing—it was night and day,” one caseworker’s testimonial said.
“The children came feeling nervous and struggling to stay positive, and then once they started participating in the project their behavior and attitude changed. Seeing the children smiling, feeling good about their accomplishments and themselves, enjoying time in nature, and excited about life, was worth more than we could have ever expected.”
Those interested in becoming a mentor at one of the Mayfly Project’s available locations—no fishing expertise is required—can submit an application through the organization’s webpage.
Interested applicants without a local Mayfly Project chapter are still encouraged to submit a form, as new locations are expected for 2021.