FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) The longtime executive director of Community Harvest Food Bank and 2015 Sagamore of the Wabash award winner, Jane Avery, has died following a battle with stage 4 brain cancer, the food bank announced today. She was 62.

Avery, who led the local food bank since 1996, had been on medical leave since Thanksgiving Day when she suffered a seizure.

“Today, Community Harvest Food Bank lost its beloved Executive Director, Jane Avery,” Community Harvest board president Matt Bell said in a release. “Under Jane’s leadership, Community Harvest Food Bank blossomed into an organization that feeds more than 21,000 people in Northeast Indiana each week. Jane was insistent each and every day that every client of Community Harvest Food Bank be treated with the utmost dignity. She believed in the worth of every individual that came in the contact with Community Harvest Food Bank, and she made that a core value of everything that happens at Community Harvest Food Bank.”

As executive director of Community Harvest, Avery strengthened the food bank into one of the region’s most well-stocked and widest reaching. In her nearly two decades as its head, Community Harvest more than tripled its budget and distributed more produce to the area’s needy than any Indiana member organization of Feeding America. The food bank said it distributed nearly 13 million pounds of food with a budget of $3.3 million, and served more than 375 churches and nonprofit groups as member agencies.

Community Harvest was named “Food Bank of the Year” in 2005, the smallest food bank to receive the recognition from Feeding America.

Community Harvest Board Member and District Manager for Kroger Chris Gomez said Avery played a pivotal role in his career. He’s known her for years and said she truly made an impact on everyone she met.

“She was a pioneer. People respected her, people listened to her and certainly enjoyed her company. She focused on the people. Jane always talked about feeding the hungry with dignity and she was a firm believer of that. She had that drive. She was committed. She was a leader. She really made you want to do great things,” Gomez said. “The thing that makes me smile. The thing that I will miss the most is Jane’s hugs. Everybody that knows Jane knows what I’m talking about. Just from day one…I’m just going to miss her hugs. She will certainly be missed.”

Gomez recalled Avery’s infectious spirit and an optimism that could cheer anyone up.

“Jane has touched this community in ways that you can’t even thank her enough. You couldn’t say no to Jane. Well you could, but at the end, you would still want to do and would do something for Jane, but for the cause, for feeding the hungry,” Gomez said. “Jane said that when the food bank started, back when Harvester left the area, it was really going to be short-term, was the initial thought process. But, obviously, there’s still thousands of hungry people out there and she never lost sight of that. She knew that there were folks in need and she continued to grow the food bank.”

Her leadership led to opportunities to chair and serve on several Feeding America national committees and food bank work groups. Avery chaired the Feeding America Central Region network, which represented nearly half of Feeding America’s food banks, as well as a seat on the Feeding America National Council. She also worked on national programs and disaster relief efforts and advised leaders on the 2008 Farm Bill.

That work led to honors. In 2009, Avery was presented with the “Distinguished Hoosier Award” by then Gov. Mitch Daniels, and in 2010 named a finalist for the Indiana Torchbearer Award. In 2011, Avery was presented the “Key to the Fort” award from Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry. She was the Journal Gazette’s 2008 “Citizen of the Year.”

In March, while she was on medical leave, Avery was honored by Gov. Mike Pence with the Sagamore of the Wabash award, the state’s highest distinction. It is reserved for those who give distinguished service to the state.

Henry called Avery’s passing a “significant loss for Fort Wayne and northeast Indiana,” saying he was “honored” to have known her.

“(Avery’s) caring spirit for all allowed her to make the Community Harvest Food Bank a national leader in serving the hungry with compassion and dignity,” Henry said in a release. “She also excelled at creating partnerships to further the food bank’s reach. Her contribution to the community will continue for a long time to come with the innovative programs she implemented at Community Harvest and the can-do attitude she embodied.”

Several other political leaders have issued statements regarding the life and legacy of Jane Avery.Representative Martin Carbaugh: 

“I was saddened to hear of the passing of Jane Avery, the Executive Director of our local Community Harvest Food Bank. She was a wonderful member of our community, and her legacy of helping those with the greatest need will always be remembered. My prayers go out to her family, friends and loved ones.”Governor Mike Pence:

“It is with deep sadness that I learned of the passing of Jane Avery, a selfless leader and beloved Hoosier. Jane was a pillar of the community in Fort Wayne and devoted her career to serving the most vulnerable among us. Her compassion was unmatched, and she epitomized all that is good about the Hoosier spirit each and every day. Today, Indiana lost one of our best. The First Lady and I extend our sincerest condolences to her husband, her daughters, and the countless Hoosiers touched by Jane Avery’s kindness.”Allen County Board of Commissioners: 

“For so many people in Allen County and throughout northeast Indiana, Jane Avery was the Community Harvest Food Bank.  She would be the first to tell you she had many great individuals working alongside her who deserved credit.  But everyone knew it was Jane’s seemingly inexhaustible energy, spirit, compassion and positive attitude which guided the agency and made a difference in the lives of thousands of our residents.  It is almost impossible to think of Community Harvest without Jane at the helm, but we know the foundation she has laid will continue to serve others into the future.  On behalf of the citizens of Allen County, we offer our sincere condolences to Jane’s family and many, many friends.”

Carmen Griffith, who was named interim director of Community Harvest after Avery fell ill, said her predecessor left a lasting legacy.

“Jane dedicated her life to helping others and feeding hungry people, and insisted that clients be treated with dignity,” said Griffith. “She was not bashful in asking others to donate food and money to advance our mission of alleviating hunger in northeast Indiana.”

Avery is survived by her husband, Bill Hoover, and her daughters Elizabeth Mannir, Mo Jeffrey and Allison Avery. Funeral arrangements are pending.

It is with great sadness that we share the news of the passing of Jane Avery, the founding heart and soul of Feeding Indiana’s Hungry and director of Community Harvest Food Bank.Posted by Feeding Indiana’s Hungry on Friday, July 17, 2015