Wenatchee, Wash. – After leading the Washington Apple Education Foundation (WAEF) as its executive director for 20 years, Jennifer Witherbee has announced her intent to step down at the end of March 2022.
Witherbee shared that the timing of her departure has much to do with the current health of the organization, “WAEF is in a great place with loyal donor support, a strong staff, involved industry leaders on the board of directors, and a proven track record. I am truly fortunate to have had the opportunity to be part of WAEF for 20 years and couldn’t feel more proud of the impact we’ve had on thousands of students. The timing feels right to step away and allow others to contribute their ideas and energy.” Witherbee will stay on through the end of March to assist the board of directors with the search for a new executive director and ensure a smooth transition.
Laurie Knebusch is the foundation’s chairman. She shared this about Witherbee’s upcoming departure, “For 20 years, not only has Jennifer left her mark on the students and foundation, but she has also impacted the apple industry as well. We can all proudly hold up WAEF as a shining example of what can be achieved when we all come together for a worthy cause, in large part thanks to Jennifer’s leadership.” Knebusch, along with a committee from the board of directors, will be leading the search for the new executive director. A process that is expected to take the next two to three months.
WAEF is the charity of Washington’s tree fruit industry. It was founded in 1994 and is best known for its scholarship program that now assists hundreds of students annually with scholarship awards in excess of $1 million. However, the foundation only considers scholarship funding one element of its support to students. “The goal of WAEF is for our students to graduate in four or fewer years with the professional network to successfully land their first career job,” shared Witherbee. To that end, the foundation provides year-round outreach to students through professional development, career exploration, and mentoring. The majority of WAEF scholarship recipients are first-generation college students.
During Witherbee’s tenure at the foundation, scholarships granted grew from just under $100,000 to over $1 million awarded annually. Currently, over 90% of WAEF scholarship recipients meet renewal requirements or graduate each year. Last year just over 70% of scholarship recipients graduated in four or fewer years; this compares with a national statistic of 21% of first-generation, low-income students achieving college diplomas in six or fewer years.
The foundation is focused on achieving its mission and spends over 80% of its funds annually on program related activities. Over 200 volunteers participate with WAEF annually providing valuable contributions through student support, fundraising, and governance.
A recent foundation achievement was the passing in March of 2020 of SB6032, the bill creating the Washington apple license plates that provide $28 to WAEF from each plate purchased and renewed by Washington drivers.
According to an early WAEF board member Christian Schlect, “Many years ago, Jennifer Witherbee took over a program that was poised for growth, comparable to a newly-planted orchard. Through hard work, vision, and a committed board she helped nurture and expand it into a prime property for our entire tree fruit industry. While Jennifer will be missed, WAEF is solid and will continue bearing good fruit under new leadership.”
Witherbee has an MBA from Washington State University and an undergraduate degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Eastern Oregon University. She completed a course in Strategic Perspectives for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard in 2017. In 2020, Witherbee was honored by the Washington State Apple Blossom Festival as its apple citizen of the year. She is originally from Chelan and is the daughter of Herold & Vicki Peebles. She and her husband, Jay, reside in Wenatchee and plan to continue to stay in the area.
For more information on the Washington Apple Education Foundation, visit www.waef.org or call (509) 663-7713.