8 minute read

The Mayfly Project

A national organization introduces foster children to fly fishing

BY MICAH DREW

There is a scene in Norman Maclean’s classic book “A River Runs Through It,” in which the author and his brother talk about how their brother-in-law. When the author asks whether they should help said relative, his brother says, “Yes, I thought we were going to.”

“How?” I asked.

“By taking him fishing with us.”

“I’ve just told you,” I said, “He doesn’t like to fish.”

“Maybe so,” my brother replied. “But maybe what he likes is somebody trying to help him.”

As the author infers, the act of taking someone fishing can be used as a doorway to the opportunity to connect and support yourself and others.

A similar ethos is at play with The Mayfly Project (TMP), a national nonprofit organization that uses fly fishing as a catalyst to mentor children in the foster care system, introducing them to local watersheds and helping them develop a deeper connection with the outdoors.

ROB GRIGGS

ROB GRIGGS

PHOTO BY KIMBERLY CORDERO

This summer, a group of Boise-area youth will be inducted into the order of fisherfolk in the second round of the local chapter of The Mayfly Project. “Our Boise project is one of our absolute favorite sites,” said TMP co-founder Kaitlyn Barnhart, who lives in northern Idaho. “They’ve turned it into exactly what it was meant to be.”

For nearly two decades, Barnhart has used fly fishing to decompress from her career working in Child Protective Services, juvenile detention, and residential treatment with foster children. After realizing what a therapeutic experience it was for her to be out on the water casting, she thought fishing could provide the same experience for the youths she worked with.

“I just started taking kids fly fishing to get them outside and give them a break,” Barnhart said. “It gave them a chance to learn a new skill and to feel good about themselves because everyone feels pretty awesome when they catch a fish.”

While Barnhart was casting with kids in northern Idaho, Jess Westbrook was doing the same thing in Arkansas. Westbrook and his wife started TMP, expecting the program to just have a local reach, but the logo created for the nonprofit caught the eye of Barnhart, and she immediately reached out to Westbrook.

JACOB

JACOB

PHOTO BY KIMBERLY CORDERO

In 2016, the two joined their visions and launched the national The Mayfly Project as a way to teach fly fishing and conservation to children in the foster care system around the country. In the first year, the program had five locations across the nation, a number that nearly quadrupled the following year.

Now, TMP has 63 sites around the U.S. and in the United Kingdom and mentors around 450 kids each year.

Each local project is centered around a five-session program, characterized by the part of a mayfly’s life cycle. In the “egg stage,” youth are introduced to the program’s mentors and to the fly rod. In the “nymph stage,” casting and knot tying, are tackled and participants spend their first time on the water. The remaining three stages add in an educational component about conservation, teach the finer points of reading a river, various casting styles and fly tying and finally, mentees are presented with their own fly rod and gear to continue their fishing journey.

“We keep it to five sessions to make sure that kids can start and finish the program, which can be hard with the shifting of the foster care system,” Barnhart said. “But by the end of five sessions, the kids are really self-sufficient and can basically go out fly fishing on their own, which is really fun to see.”

JACOB AND ROB

JACOB AND ROB

PHOTO BY KIMBERLY CORDERO

Each project site has its own flavor, based on the project lead, the local partners — Boise’s project works with Three Rivers Ranch Outfitters and Idaho Angler —the variety of mentors and the available bodies of water to fish on.

Kimberly Cordero leads the Boise project. A licensed clinical social worker who spent 12 years working for the state of Idaho in child welfare, Cordero came across the Mayfly Project by accident.

“After I went into private practice, I was cruising around the internet and just happened upon the Mayfly project,” Cordero said, taking a break from fishing out near Star to join a Zoom call. “It was like the universe said ‘Hey Kim, this is what you need to be doing,’ so here I am.”

Barnhart had been looking for a lead for the Boise project, and Cordero fit the role. Along with several mentors who had already signed up, the Boise Mayfly project launched in the spring of 2021 with six youths.

SJ AND LUCAS

SJ AND LUCAS

PHOTO BY KRIS REHN

“Getting kids involved is actually one of the hardest things,” Cordero said. “The Department of Health and Welfare is severely understaffed, so contacting case managers or supervisors is difficult. They just don’t have the time.”

Using some of her contacts with foster families through the Idaho Relative as Parents (IRAP) program, a voluntary guardianship program that avoids the court system, Cordero found families and kids who were interested in the program and brought the Boise project online.

Rob Griggs was guiding a fly fishing trip early last summer when he heard about the Mayfly Project. His client that day was Cordero and her son, and she was effusive about the upcoming launch.

Fly fishing is as much an art as a sport and most devotees love to share the magic. When asked if he would consider teaching a casting class for the youth, Griggs agreed. “I tell you I fell in love with the program instantly,” Griggs said. “I was just supposed to be a guest, teaching basic casting techniques, but that first day, it just pulled at my heart.”

I love learning fly fishing and it was totally worth going. All the people were nice and when I had a question, it was answered.

-unamed mentee

The youth in the program weren’t like his usual clients — dressed in top-of-theline waders and vests and carrying brand new bespoke rods.

“These kids aren’t entering the fishing world from that level and I wanted to be part of that,” said Griggs, who is now one of 22 mentors involved in Boise’s program. “Hopefully, we’re able to plant a seed for fly fishing that they can do for the rest of their lives, even if it’s not right away. We want them to know that even when the world seems bad, we can go outside, go fish, and see the world from that perspective.”

With nearly two dozen mentors involved in the program, the kids often have a two-to-one mentor ratio, allowing them to receive full attention and instruction during the five sessions.

“They went out of their way to spend direct attention with each kid and literally spent hours with them each day,” said Loucendy Ball, a foster parent who had two kids take part in last year’s project. “Both my kids were so glad once they were in it and saw how much the mentors cared.”

“The child welfare system is huge,” Cordero said. “These kids interface with therapists, with the court, with guardians, with community groups like the Boys and Girls Club, with their schools. We’re just one piece in that system. It’s not intended to be a lifetime bond between mentors and mentees; we’re focused on building a bond between the mentees, fly fishing, and nature.”

Nature has long been known to increase mental wellbeing and overall health, and more recently, interactions with the outdoors are used as therapeutic interventions. A 2019 study in Scientific Reports showed that 120 minutes of contact with nature each week significantly increases the likelihood of self-reporting good health and high wellbeing, and a recently published study of youths in a foster care system that used forest healing programs over a three-day period showed significant overall increase in interpersonal relationship for the participants.

“We know that it’s really hard to stay on a negative train of thought, what we call a ruminating thought, when your mind is distracted with a completely different task that doesn’t require critical thinking,” Cordero said. “It’s about the rhythm and the movement of fly fishing.”

“You have to be paying attention to your surroundings,” Barnhart added. “Looking at bugs, making sure you’re fishing the right part of the water, watching every inch of line, what’s in front and behind you,” Barnhart said. “Holding on to all those different things in your head makes it really hard to focus on other things in life. That’s where we really see a big transition in the youth — they’re so focused on fishing, they forget to worry.”

“If you want any other proof of how the program works, I mean, just look at their behaviors when they show up,” Cordero said. “If you can get a kid involved in an activity, and you can see them beaming and smiling and laughing and engaging with people in a positive manner, I think that’s all the proof you need.”

To find out more, visit the website — https:// themayflyproject.com/boise-idaho-project

Lead photo: BACK ROW — LEFT TO RIGHT, ROB GRIGGS, JESSICA ALLEN, CHRIS ISELEY, MAC CHRISTIAN, KIMBERLY CORDERO; FRONT ROW — KRIS REHN, JEREMY SANDERS / PHOTO BY TREG GORRINGE

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