I discovered The Mayfly Project when a child therapist reached out to me to find a mentor for a young man in St. Petersburg. Like so many young men and women, he loves to fish but has no one to coach him. My first thought was to reach out to my friend and former Florida Outdoor Writer’s Association President Bill AuCoin. AuCoin is a member of and produces a newsletter for the Suncoast Fly Fishers (SCFF), a St. Petersburg-based fly club. SCFF is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that is also a charter member of the Fly Fishers International group.
The day after I reached out to AuCoin, he sent me an email introduction to Scott Russell, a fly club member who is heading up a project to mentor foster children through a unique program called The Mayfly Project. The Mayfly Project is a 501(c)(3) national organization that uses fly fishing as a catalyst to mentor and support children in foster care. The website describes the mission of The Mayfly Project: “To support children in foster care through fly fishing and introduce them to their local water ecosystems, with a hope that connecting them to a rewarding hobby will provide an opportunity for foster children to have fun, build confidence, and develop a meaningful connection with the outdoors.”
When I went to The Mayfly Project website and read the story of how the founders, Jess and Laura Westbrook, were inspired to form the organization, I was “hooked.” Jess Westbrook’s idea to use fly fishing as a tool to support children in foster care was derived from how he used fly fishing as a therapeutic tool to manage his own anxiety. In 2014, Jess and wife Laura’s son, Kase, was born. Soon after, Jess started experiencing intense anxiety attacks, which he had never had before. In a six-month period, he lost 30 pounds, was missing work frequently and distancing himself from loved ones. Even though Jess had been fly fishing since he was 6 years old, everything changed for him when a friend stepped in to help.
“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,” explained Jess. All his worries and anxious thoughts seemed to disappear as soon as he stepped into the water. “When we are fly fishing, we are so concentrated on casting, mending, presenting good drifts, etc., that we forget about everything else around us.”
During this time, Jess was introduced to mentoring children in foster care through an organization at church. The timing was perfect. He was looking for a way to give back to the community through fly-fishing, a sport that had helped him over some very tough hurdles.
“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,” Jess said.
When I reached out to Russell about a mentor, he related his own story. “My wife and I are very familiar with the challenges foster youth struggle with. Many of them that struggle with controlling their emotions frankly have days that are full of being ‘corrected’ by the adults (e.g. teachers, parents, foster home staff, etc.) in their lives. Our project is meant to just be a break from everything. As mentors in the program, we’re not there to try to fix things that aren’t going right in their life, we are only there to spend time with them, have fun, and teach them about fly fishing. Similar to how fly fishing has been found to be great therapy for veterans through the Healing Waters program, we hope that fly fishing can be a great escape for these kids from their normal routine. I know for me, even just tying flies or practicing casting is a great way to get my mind off of all the ’stuff’ going on in my life. It’s also a nice opportunity for them to learn about conservation and how it will help preserve the natural resources we enjoy. These youth need all the help our community can provide.”
Westbrook and Russell’s story is inspirational to me and resonated because fishing in general, and fly fishing in particular, had been so helpful to me when I experienced my own bout with anxiety and depression. I credit a large part of my recovery to the friends and family who supported me. I had experienced the same relief that Jess and Scott had on the water.
There are many programs like The Mayfly Project that use fishing to help disadvantaged children, breast cancer survivors, soldiers and others navigate the inevitable traumas that life brings. What better way for us to use our passion to assist others who need a helping hand.