MISSOULA, Montana – The Orvis Company is proud to present its coveted Breaking Barriers Award to Jess Westbrook, founder of The Mayfly Project, an Arkansas-based mentoring program for children in foster care. This award honors an individual who has gone above and beyond to bring new blood into the sport of fly fishing, and who has a positive impact on their community at large.
Jess Westbrook started fishing when he was eight years old, but it wasn’t until three years ago that the sport took on a new meaning for him. In 2014, Westbrook and his wife, Lauren, welcomed a baby boy. Soon after, Westbrook started to experience intense anxiety attacks. In a six-month period, he lost thirty pounds, was missing work frequently, and had distanced himself from friends and family.
“A friend that I admired kept getting me out on the river, and I found that when I was there I forgot about everything but fishing,” explained Westbrook. His anxiety disappeared when he stepped into the water. “When we are fly fishing we are so concentrated on the casting, mending, presenting good drifts, etc., that we forget about everything else around us.”
It was during this period that Westbrook began mentoring children in foster care through an organization at his 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 knowing that my son was going to grow up in a loving home with parents that would support him no matter what, and these kids in foster care did not have that,” explained Westbrook. “It’s hard enough growing up, especially without loving parents. They did not choose this path. Someone else’s action brought them to where they are”.
Partnering with Kaitlin Barnhart, who also works with children in foster care, the Westbrooks found they shared the same beliefs on why fly fishing is so important to this population. With deep empathy, Westbrook states, “During the most chaotic time in their lives, foster children could find an anchor in the outdoors and find home rivers even when they don’t feel like they have a home.”
The Mayfly Project participants are guided through five stages where they learn line management, casting techniques, knot tying, some entomology, river safety, mending tactics, hook setting, catch and release tactics, and the value of conservation. At the end of the five stages, each child is given his or her very own fly rod, reel, pack, fly box, flies, tippet, indicators, and more. “Our hope is for the child to continue to pursue fly fishing and to have an entry point to the outdoors,” said Westbrook.
In only a year, The Mayfly Project became an official nonprofit, and in 2016 mentored twenty-five kids from two states. This year, the number is set to double, with 50 foster children in eight states. The organization’s 2018 goal is to take at least five foster children to Alaska for a week.
The Mayfly Project is also bringing important awareness and mentoring opportunities to these “forgotten” children. Westbrook added, “We have found that some people have wanted to work with this population but have not known how to start the process. We are raising awareness for not only the number of children in foster care, which tops 400,000, but also of the fact that these children are worth our time and persistence in jumping through the hoops to get them out fishing, and eventually they will learn that the outdoors is a place of refuge for them, and is available to them throughout their lives.”
Orvis’s Breaking Barriers Award past winners include Nelli Williams from Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy (2016), Chad Brown from Soul River Runs Wild and Lori-Ann Murphy from Reel Women (2015). Entries are now being sought for 2018; Orvis is looking for those who are engaging new anglers, feeding the sport, and approaching things maybe just a bit differently. Nominations are being accepted here.
For more information or interviews, please contact us or visit www.Orvis.com/breakingbarriers.
Editor’s Note: Please click on the images above or links below for downloadable versions:
Jess Westbrook with Mayfly participants
Group of boys with rods
Young boy with fly fishing pack
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 8, 2017
Jessica Donahue, Nancy Marshall Communications
on behalf of The Orvis Company, Inc.
Founded in 1856, Orvis believes the most meaningful experiences are created by sharing the love of nature and being inspired by its endless possibilities. Orvis pioneered the mail order industry in the United States, operates more than 80 retail stores in the U.S and the U.K. and maintains a network of more than 400 dealers worldwide as a trusted source of discovery and adventure in the natural world. Orvis promises to open the door to extraordinary outdoor experiences and to protect nature by committing 5% of pretax profits each year to conservation efforts worldwide.
Learn more at www.orvis.com.