Jess Westbrook remembers spending his childhood summers chasing stocker rainbow trout in Roaring River, Missouri. With his father by his side as teacher and mentor, he cast his line and hoped for the best. Years later, he still finds time to fish his favorite spots, but these days Westbrook has moved into the role of teacher and mentor. And he’s casting more than just a line. He’s casting hope into the hearts of children in foster care.
A native of Benton, Arkansas, Westbrook spent not just his summers fishing as a child, but even worked a summer during college as a fishing guide at Alaska’s Rainbow Bay Resort in Pedro Bay. A few years ago, in 2013, he returned to the resort with his wife, Laura. It was a turning point in Westbrook’s life. It was after that trip, helping the resort setup their king salmon camp, Westbrook knew he wanted to give back to the community through fly fishing. He just wasn’t sure how. He remembers always having the comfort of a fly rod. Even after college when he traveled for his first “real job” as an auditor, his fly rod was always in tow.
It wasn’t until the following year, and after the birth of the young couple’s son, Kase, that Westbrook knew where his idea would go. He had been blessed with a teacher and mentor in his own father, now he would serve as a teacher and mentor to those without someone to take them fishing. With a heart for children in foster care, a lot of patience, some fly rods, and a lot of hope, the Mayfly Project was born.
For those not familiar with the wonderful world of fly fishing, or maybe those without a background in entomology (or have failed to be caught in a swarm of these odd-looking insects), the mayfly is also known as a shadfly. The mayfly itself has an interesting life cycle that consists of four stages. When fly fishing, the fly is tied to mimic the different stages of the mayfly’s life cycle. Similarly, the Westbrooks designed the Mayfly Project around the mayfly life cycle, as each child goes through different “stages” of the program over a six-month period. The stages involve fly tying, fly casting, and fishing outings. On the fifth and final session, the child and their mentor go out on a day-long fishing trip, putting to use the skills they have learned. Upon this final stage of a Mayfly Mentee’s cycle, the child is presented with their own rod, reel, fly box, fishing pack, nippers, and flies. Everything they will need to continue fishing on their own.
As a mentor, Westbrook has learned that success can be defined in numerous terms. He admits that his original focus was on how many fish the kids were catching. Over time he discovered that much like during his own fishing trips, the children he mentors just want to get out and have a good time. Catching fish is just icing on the cake. The memories made by both the mentor and the mentee are what matters at the end of the cycle. And several memories have stood out for Westbrook – from a child asking to call him Dad to the excitement of a child catching their first fish, or just simply hanging out and learning how to tie flies.
Since launching in 2015, the Westbrooks have been successful in finding other anglers to mentor children, and they have seen a tremendous growth over the past six months. They have been fielding calls left and right from all over the U.S. from potential volunteers and have been able to expand The Mayfly Project outside Arkansas and into Idaho, with plans for mentors in other states as well. While he recently had to turn down offers to start mentoring in South Africa and the United Kingdom (Westbrook says he isn’t ready just yet to venture overseas), his long term goal is to have mentors in all fifty states. He hopes to be in at least 10 states by the summer of 2018 with a week-long fly fishing camp in Alaska for foster children.
For now, the Westbrooks are taking this all in stride, focusing on the kids and what they can accomplish in between both of their day jobs and life with two-year-old Kase, who already shares his parents’ love for fly fishing. No doubt, Westbrook hopes to see that love of casting a line develop in his son the way it did for him with his own father—just as he hopes for all the children who go through the stages of The Mayfly Project, casting a little hope into an uncertain world.
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