There is currently an office in Harvesters’ Kansas City campus that is a bit more disorganized than usual. Drawers are partially unpacked. Cabinets cleared. Files are being meticulously combed through, laying on all of the room’s available flat surfaces.  

The mess has a purpose, albeit a bittersweet one. Our long-time Chief Resource Officer, Joanna Sebelien, is preparing for her retirement after 23 years of service at Harvesters. She has been instrumental in making our organization what it is today and has touched thousands of lives over the course of her career, both with us and with other organizations. 

Joanna began her journey in education, teaching junior high English on the East Coast. It was a school with a lot of turnover and students exhibiting heightened behavioral challenges. While trying to figure out ways to manage her classroom, Joanna realized a trend in the students who were acting out the most. 

“The children who came in in the morning, not having had breakfast, or who in the afternoon didn’t have snack were the ones who were disruptive in the classroom,” she says. “In those days, I had nothing foundationally to understand what was really happening, but I did know that if I gave them a snack they would calm down.” 

Joanna added on a part-time job for a youth organization called Campfire Girls, helping with their summer camp, and when a more permanent position opened, she initially declined it, saying she wanted to teach. It was then that one of the staff members gave her a foundational piece of advice that started laying the bedrock for her work philosophy: “You can teach outside the classroom.” 

She applied this full force, eventually becoming the local executive director, and later the Director of Fund Development with the national organization. where she helped develop a planned giving program. It was during this process that a mentor of hers gave her another piece of advice that Joanna said became key to her working with donors. 

“You help them, do what they want to do,” she says. “And they want to make an impact in someone’s life.” 

Joanna eventually moved on from Campfire Girls to the University of Missouri, Kansas City, where she worked for several years. Then, we were lucky enough to snatch her up. 

Joanna joined Harvesters in August of 2001 to manage a Capital Campaign to move into our current Kansas City headquarters. In a way, she was coming full circle to her days in the classroom where she saw the impact a little bit of food could have on a struggling child. 

Joanna’s passion for education has served us, and our neighbors, well. She is passionate about making food insecurity tangible to those who may not have experienced it but might be in a position to help. 

“I’ll just use this as hypothetical,” she says, “But if I say 160,000 people are food insecure, I might have to say that there are 80,000 seats in Arrowhead Stadium, and so you’d empty and fill that twice. It gives a picture of what that might look like.” 

Joanna has weathered several waves of national setbacks and seen how important our mission is for those affected by food insecurity. A month into her new job, the September 11th terror attacks fundamentally changed our cultural landscape. In 2008, the Great Recession had millions of Americans wondering where their next meal was coming from. And in 2020, the global COVID-19 pandemic piled additional difficulties on the shoulders of those who were already struggling. However, she has been amazed time and time again at how people still give of themselves to help their neighbors during these times. 

“I think I’ve learned that even in spite of economic downturns, different times when there was a national disaster, like the tornado in Joplin or the floods during Katrina, people just helped. It’s like, oh, well, I can’t not do that. Something deeper kicks in for people.” 

Joanna is ending her career as our Chief Resources Officer, where she has faithfully overseen our fundraising, communications, food acquisition, community engagement and public policy efforts. Hers are big shoes to fill, but Joanna says she is confident that whoever comes into the role will bring fresh eyes and a fresh perspective to our team as we seek to better serve our region. 

True to her nature, Joanna says that she is making a strategic plan for her retirement. She has plans to travel to Italy to take a watercolor course. She is looking forward to being able to live more in the moment, not having to focus on giving campaigns months in the future. And though we’re sad, we’re also excited to see what this next chapter brings for her. 

“It has been my absolute privilege to be part of this great organization for more than two decades,” she says. “I have enjoyed my time with Harvesters, with colleagues and the broader Harvesters family of volunteers and donors who have provided such great support over the years. I am immensely proud of all we have accomplished together and the impact we have made on people’s lives. What I most want people to know is how grateful I am that we have had the opportunity of making this journey together.” 

Joanna, thank you for your years of service, your commitment to our neighbors and the ways that you’ve made our lives better getting to work alongside you. It’s been a true honor, and we may never know the magnitude of the impact you’ve had on our community.