17 years of dedication: Dr. JoAnn McCleeary, PsyD retires 

Psychologist JoAnn McCleeary’s coworkers describe her as a caring person who is a champion for her patients, an advocate for children, and a contributor to the growth of behavioral health care at Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas. Dr. McCleeary is retiring, leaving behind a legacy that will impact patients and behavioral health workers for years to come.  

“I saw an incredible gift she had with children. She brought play therapy to community health before we were a behavioral health department and showed me how you could connect to little children who have been traumatized in such a safe and nurturing way,” CHC/SEK CEO Krista Postai says.  

CHC/SEK President and Chief Strategy Officer Jason Wesco shared the same sentiment. 

“Her consistency has helped us grow the behavioral health program from four providers to now more than 52,” he said. “We are in schools and jails and all kinds of locations that are helping us better reach people to health, comfort, and counsel.” 

Her Start in Psychology 

When she decided to become a psychologist, Dr. McCleeary was working in a lab making contact lenses. One day at the office, she saw a professional journal about new lenses.  

“And I thought, is this all there is?” she says. 

For the longest time, Dr. McCleeary wanted to be a psychologist, and this was her sign to become one.  

After completing her Bachelor’s degree, she completed MA and PsyD at Forest Institute in Springfield, Missouri. She was 46 years old when she started and 50 when she completed her doctoral degree.  

She moved to Minnesota for her internship at Hazelden Center for Youth and Families a Substance Treatment. She completed a rural residency in North Dakota before starting as a licensed psychologist in north central Kansas at Pawnee Community Mental Health. 

Interactive Play Therapy 

Dr. McCleeary turned her attention to young children, as young as two, who went through trauma. It was difficult to find psychologists who would see children under the age of six, so Dr. McCleeary filled the void.  

She used sand tray therapy which is part of interactive play therapy. This is a way for children to communicate their experiences and feelings through play.  

“I can’t even imagine what they are going through but the moment that I could connect with them, whether it was through play or eyesight or laughing or whatever we were doing, they suddenly got a sense of feeling safe,” Dr. McCleeary says, adding, “and they can talk about whatever they wanted or do whatever they wanted and nobody was going to get angry with them. That moment was really special, almost sacred.” 

Dr. McCleeary says play therapy is one the most researched fields of psychotherapy which uses objects — such as toys and sand — to replay a child’s memory. It is a nonverbal process because most children do not have memories with words associated with them.   

“As they begin showing their experience, you can interpret that and begin to insert healing processes into memory,” Dr. McCleeary says. “They can move beyond the nightmares and dissociation that they normally would have experienced with being abused.” 

Joining CHC/SEK 

“I picked up the phone and called one place with a job and Krista Postai answered the phone,” Dr. McCleeary says. That was just over 17 years ago.  

At the time, CHC/SEK behavioral health staff were in a little brick house adjacent to the 3011 N. Michigan clinic in Pittsburg while construction was underway on the new clinic.  

“It was close and personal with the staff, and I felt family in that,” Dr. McCleeary says. “I felt the love, I felt the caring for patients, I felt the not wanting anybody to fall into the cracks, so to speak, making sure everybody had quality healthcare.”  

Dr. McCleeary says it was exciting to be part of CHC/SEK’s growth.  

“The need is growing along with our ability to offer services, so we can’t stop, and we can’t miss a beat,” McCleeary says. “I am so grateful to be here and to be able to serve my community like this. It has been a joy, and it has fulfilled a purpose in my life, and I am very thankful.” 

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