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Life & Work with Kaitlin Barnhart

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kaitlin Barnhart.  

Hi Kaitlin, so excited to have you with us today. What can you tell us about your story?
As a mental health professional, my career always pivoted around helping youth in foster care and foster families thrive. Early in my career, I started to use my hobby of fly fishing as a way to cope with the stress from work and to decompress from the feelings of not being able to do enough for foster children. I soon realized how therapeutic fly fishing was and also how beneficial it would be for children in foster care to experience these moments of getting to take a break from a chaotic, always changing life. I began to take foster children here and there on the weekends but couldn’t convince my staff that this sport should be added as a therapeutic modality. Several years later, I met Jess Westbrook, of Little Rock, Arkansas, through social media–I learned that he had just started taking foster children fly fishing and started a nonprofit, called The Mayfly Project, to serve his local community. After many hours on the phone, discussing our similar philosophies, with the common denominator being fly fishing is healing and home waters can be anywhere you can cast a fly rod, we knew we had to take it to the next level. With Jess’ background in finance and his wife, Laura’s background as a lawyer, and my knowledge of foster care and program development, together, we decided to turn TMP into a national nonprofit. We started with two projects in Idaho and Arkansas, and now have 63 projects across the country and into the United Kingdom, serving hundreds of kids a year with the great sport of fly fishing and the gift of mentorship. All of our projects start because someone in the community cares about children in care and wants to get them outdoors fly fishing. We select 5 lead mentors a year for project start-ups and end up receiving about 15-20 applications to start projects per year. In Michigan, we have two established projects in Grand Rapids and Traverse City, and we are starting a new project in Detroit in 2023. Kids in our program get to participate in 5 mentoring outings where they learn all about fly fishing, conservation, the characteristics of an angler, and how to tie flies, and they receive all of their own fly-fishing gear to keep! 

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Early on, the biggest struggle was working my other job while trying to build The Mayfly Project. I spent so many nights up till 3 am, trying to lay a strong foundation for TMP, and then working during the day while raising 3 kids. I often call TMP my 4th baby because I was up so late with it when it was a baby haha. The other struggle was developing TMP long-distance with Jess in a completely different state (we still run TMP together from different states). I don’t want to know how many hours we have spent on the phone since 2015, but we are used to it now and proud of what we have accomplished together. I have left my career to pursue TMP full-time now! 

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
As the co-founder and program director of The Mayfly Project, I do a multitude of jobs for TMP, but mainly program development, building projects, training lead mentors, doing crisis prevention work, and helping our project leads connect to the foster care systems where they are starting projects. Before joining TMP, I wore many hats, that included hospital social work, case management with health and welfare, and residential treatment counselor for youth in care. Once I became a serious fly fisher, I started writing for magazines and used my hobby of writing to share my adventures with the world and to encourage that fly fishing is indeed for everyone. I’m incredibly proud of how TMP has grown and whenever I receive pictures (almost every weekend) from projects out fly fishing with foster kids, it’s such a rewarding feeling for us. 

What quality or characteristic do you feel is most important to your success?
Grit and passion! Jess and I are very similar in that we work hard, we don’t give up, and obstacles are not roadblocks but just a minor inconveniences. We teach the kids in our program that fly fishing creates the characteristic of having grit–being able to push through when the fish aren’t biting, when things aren’t working out like we wanted, and understanding that the feeling of success at the end of the day was worth the struggles. Grit is also rolling with the punches, which as a nonprofit leaders working with foster care systems, we have to sometimes deal with! We wouldn’t be doing this if we were not incredibly passionate about supporting foster children with fly fishing! 


  • Cost per kid to participate $780

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Kyla Kulp Photography
Emma Brown Photography

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