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Change coming for apple foundation leadership

by Staff report
| November 29, 2021 1:00 AM

After leading the Washington Apple Education Foundation, or WAEF, as its executive director for 20 years, Jennifer Witherbee has announced she intends to step down at the end of March 2022.

“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,” she stated in a WAEF press release.

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.

“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,” said Laurie Knebusch, the foundation’s chairman, in the press release. “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 lead the search for the new executive director, a process expected to take 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,” Witherbee said in the press release.

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, according to the press release.

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 more than 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, according to the press release.

The foundation is focused on achieving its mission and spends over 80% of its funds annually on program related activities. More than 200 volunteers participate with WAEF annually.

A recent achievement for the foundation was passage in March 2020 of SB 6032, the bill creating the Washington apple license plates. It provides $28 to WAEF from each plate purchased and renewed by Washington drivers.

“Many years ago, Jennifer Witherbee took over a program that was poised for growth, comparable to a newly planted orchard,” said Christian Schlect, an early WAEF board member, in the press release. “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.”

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