Erie's 2016 40 Under 40
Forty young innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders shaping the future of Erie.
From musicians to educators, from actors to programmers, from politicians to entrepreneurs, the 2016 class of Erie's 40 Under 40 features inspiring men and women working to make Erie a better place for young and old alike. Almost half of of those chosen grew up right here in Erie County. Other young people from all over the state – and all over the world – arrived here and stayed to help build up our community. Together they represent some of the brightest beacons of hope for our city. Some faces might be familiar, while some might seem brand new. Some are leading the fight for equal rights, and some have bravely fought for our country. All are innovators, and all are champions in their fields. We had hundreds of nominations, and eventually we were able to narrow them down to an exceptional twoscore honorees. So without further ado, here they are: the 2016 class of Erie's 40 Under 40.
David Baltusavich, 32
Entrepreneur, Owner and Software Architect of SynaTree
Even though Baltusavich is not an Erie native (he's from Pottstown, outside of Philadelphia) he has a passion for local, forward-thinking projects for Erie. He is the owner and software architect of SynaTree, a consulting and programming company; the treasurer and a member of the board of directors of the Whole Foods Cooperative; the president of Box of Light Studios, Inc.; and a co-founder of Radius CoWork.
Baltusavich attended the University of Pittsburgh where he studied computer science, writing, and theater. After moving to Erie in 2010, his work with the Co-op focused on making healthy foods more available to city residents.
He enjoys creating a community of entrepreneurs and likeminded creative individuals with Radius CoWork. He says that "Erie's up-and-coming are already changing the old, fatalistic narrative of decline and are building a culture of healthy interdependence and optimism that is the key to Erie's future."If you don't see him around one of his four workplaces, you might see him building an eco-friendly home for his family on 40 acres of land along French Creek.
Nicole Bawol, 33
Executive Director for Humane Society of Northwestern Pennsylvania
Since assuming directorship of the Humane Society in May 2015, Nicole Bawol has worked tirelessly to return pet defectors to supportive troops. Her knowledge, drive, poise, and passion have left a positive imprint on both her organization and the community at large. Bawol attended Villa Maria and the University of Dayton before earning her master's in non-profit management and leadership. She coordinates all shelter operations, events, and programs in addition to managing two dozen staff and hundreds of shelter pets. The shelter has served as a refuge for orphaned and injured pets for 124 years. While all these responsibilities may seem like a constant tug-of-war, Bawol enjoys what she does:
"I think of how proud I am to work somewhere you can bring joy to families, provide peace of mind for those saying good-bye, and most of all rehabilitate animals, helping to give them a brand new life. Passion is the key to success. Work hard and do what you love!"
Timothy Bruno, 39
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Great Lakes Region Chief
Gannon University graduate Tim Bruno has been working to protect the health of Erie's Great Lake (and, by extension, everyone and everything around it) for many years.
Coordinating water policy issues with other Great Lakes states and provinces and representing Pennsylvania's priorities on water use and water quality, the 39-year-old husband and father of three also prioritizes and manages funding for various Lake Erie water initiatives, and works closely with local and county governments, other state agencies, and nonprofit organizations to further the goals of the Department of Environmental Protection's water protection programs.
Beyond that, he's known by his closest friends as a killer guitarist, a skilled home-brewer, an avid outdoorsman, and someone who really knows how to have a good time.
"The Erie region holds great promise and potential, but is faced with significant challenges both now and in the coming years," says Bruno. "It's up to Erie's younger generations to buy into a shared vision, find solutions to our problems through a fresh perspective, and have the determination and persistence to follow through and build this community into a Pennsylvania success story."
Heather Cash, 34
Born in Erie but raised in Florida, Heather Cash currently resides here working as a self-employed artist pursuing her creative passion of painting. After graduating from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor's degree in computer programming, she moved to California to work as programmer for Google before deciding to move back to Erie to kickstart her career as an artist. She is a painter, teacher, and freelance illustrator. Cash is not only passionate about helping others discover their inner creative sentiment through her work teaching canvas painting classes at Claytopia, but she is also adamant about creating beautiful murals around the city for all of us to admire. "I love to create beautiful spaces all over Erie," she says. "I get a great feeling from creating a mural that makes a space feel whimsical and reminds others of the best parts of life – friendship, happiness, and togetherness." You can check out her wonderful murals at the Erie Zoo, Salvation Army, JFK Center, and the Children's Museum.
Richie Colosimo, 25
Richie Colosimo moved from Bradford, Pennsylvania to Erie two years ago after earning a bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. Colosimo is the guitarist and vocalist in the local band Frame and Mantle, who just released a remastered version of their EP While Our Fields Lie Fallow last month. In addition to playing music, Colosimo and his bandmates also facilitate a local all-ages venue called Conjunction Junction. They work together to bring in local artists as well as bands from all over the country to expose our community to music they otherwise would have to travel to see. Conjunction Junction also serves as a safe, comfortable place for local musicians to network amongst themselves and with touring acts.
Aside from playing and organizing local shows, Colosimo works as an online sellers account manager for a locally owned and operated business called LuggageDesigners. Colosimo loves what he does and his talent and organizational skills are an asset to our community. "Young people are a force in Erie for making positive changes and bringing new ideas – whether it be in the arts, business, or technology," he says. "I think that young professionals keep Erie vibrant and help to make it a place where young people want to be."
CA Conrad, 38
Managing Director, VCG Properties
Sometimes you have to tear down a few walls to build anew. This Springfield, Illinois native knows this better than most. Serving as managing director of VCG Properties, Conrad's most visible impact on the Erie community has been the revitalization of the West Erie Plaza. When word got out that the movie theater there was to be razed, his vision received a fair share of criticism. But this Special Operations U.S. Marine is calm, cool, collected, and driven in anything he does – whether it's transforming a weathered shopping center or rescuing primates. In fact, he once walked through one of the poorest inner-city streets in West Africa in pitch black swilling Heinekens with his VCG partner Chris Greene by his side and a rescued wild baboon hanging off his leg while others ran in fear. And today, his vision and groundbreaking decisions for development are celebrated. "Business is little more than a series of choices: risk-versus-reward," Conrad says. "We can choose self-gratification and fall in line with entrenched establishment norms, or we can surround ourselves with talented individuals who push us to become better versions of ourselves."
Chanel Cook, 38
Manager of Outreach Services, Erie County Public Library
"Great food and genuine conversations can heal the world," says self-described foodie and change agent, Chanel Cook. Born, raised, and educated in Erie, this Villa Maria Academy and Gannon University graduate has worked in the public sector and served on local boards for 16 years, which she credits with affording her the opportunity to help others overcome obstacles and pursue their dreams. She lives by the motto, "service above self."
Cook recently left the office of the County Executive to serve as the manager of outreach services for the Erie County Public Library, where she is responsible for maintaining and developing local and regional partnerships. In addition to her work for Erie County, she's also a 2015 graduate of the Jefferson Educational Society's Erie County Civic Leadership Academy.
Erika Dauber Berlin, 35
Vice President of Technology, Larson Texts
When she finished her master's degree in learning design and technology at Stanford University, her experience and her passions could have taken her anywhere. Five years later, now VP of Technology at Larson Texts and Big Ideas Learning, a local publisher of math textbooks, Erika Dauber Berlin knows she is in the right place. As a graduate of McDowell High School and Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, Dauber Berlin knew that Erie had the potential to be the kind of place where cultural programs and professional lifestyles could flow and flourish.
Since 2011, she has served as the president of the Film Society of Northwest Pennsylvania where she helped kickstart programs such as FILM at the Erie Art Museum, the Greater Erie Film Office, and GEAR at Penn State Behrend. "I realized that everything we envisioned for the organization in 2011 has come to pass," she says. "We've fostered a film community in Erie through our film series and our partners; we've galvanized local filmmakers to come together in support of each other; and we've educated the community, whether by facilitating and encouraging film criticism and discourse at screenings, or through education programs like Erie's Voices."
Sean Fedorko, 30
Co-founder, Radius CoWork
For Sean Fedorko, it's about making the business of making the City of Erie better easier for its downtown denizens. "We drive new businesses, events, and daily life back into the heart of the city," explains this 30-year-old Erie native. "Re-urbanization starts with people moving their work into the city; we make that easy." That we is Radius CoWork, Erie's only co-working space, which Fedorko co-founded in 2015.After studying political science and philosophy at Mercyhurst University, he went on to complete his master's degree in public policy and political theory at Indiana University Bloomington.
When he returned to Erie, he didn't come back empty-handed. With cultivating a community of collaboration in mind, Fedorko created a space where folks looking to begin – or grow – a business could connect with other creatives and entrepreneurs. "Mediocrity doesn't get us anywhere," he says. "Erie's ambitious emerging leaders drive fast, take chances, and spend their money and themselves on an incredible struggle to build something. And they aren't afraid to fail along the way."
Emily Fetcko, 37
Owner, Moxie Media
Emily Fetcko chose to include "moxie" in her business name because it means "courage combined with inventiveness." It took courage to leave behind formal public relations positions and start her own business, but it's what Fetcko wanted. She grew up in Oil City, Pennsylvania, surrounded by creative family and friends who always supported and encouraged her passion for art. As owner and creative director of Moxie Media, Fetcko helps organizations to market themselves in a unique way and develop a strong brand name. When moving to Erie in 2013, Fetcko immediately took every opportunity to become involved in the community, the place she calls home. She volunteers with Dress for Success Erie and serves on the 2016 advisory panel for Athena Erie and the promotions committee for the Erie Downtown Partnership. She believes everyone can be successful and make a difference. "Don't just speak up," she says. "Show up and do something that will add value to the causes you care about."
Carlo Fuda, 38
Marketing Director, reCap
Carlo Fuda has been on reality TV, he's released his own music on iTunes, and he's worked for some of the world's largest science and technology firms. A native of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, Fuda graduated Cum Laude from Gannon University with a degree in medical technology, after which he lived in several mid-Atlantic cities and abroad in Italy. His travels illustrated for him the value of young talent in creating a thriving city.
That's why this Erie Ambassador believes so strongly in the work he's done since returning to Erie and taking on the task of developing marketing and public relations strategies for a successful local startup. "I'm really proud to work for reCAP," he says. "I was Karen Rzepecki's first employee and since starting over two years ago, we have expanded our team, experienced year-over-year growth, and have had a direct impact on the local job market by working with and supporting other Erie businesses."
Laura Guncheon, 37
Director of Community Affairs & Public Relations, the Office of Pennsylvania Sen. Sean Wiley
At the young age of 12, Laura Guncheon and her brother started working a paper route. Aside from earning a bit of spending money, Guncheon learned that hard work is, well, hard. But, she also learned that if you continue to push onward – say, up a mighty hill at the end of a long route – you will reach your destination.
This Port Allegany, Pennsylvania native applies this work ethic to her current role, where she directs community affairs and public relations for Sen. Sean Wiley, while also facilitating the Senatorial Advisory Committee and acting as the general eyes, ears, and boots on the ground for the senator. This graduate of Mercyhurst University (master's in administration of justice) and University of Pittsburgh at Bradford (bachelor's in administration of justice) says that "Young people are walking and talking litmus tests for an idea or even for a region. The level of fearlessness embodied in us ultimately results in risk and reward," she adds, "and I always remember that an expert in anything was once a beginner."
Jennifer Hunt Roden, 39
School Psychologist, Advocate
Born and raised in Erie, Jennifer Hunt Roden has built a career as psychologist for the Erie School District over the past nine years. After graduating from Edinboro University with a B.A. in music, a Master of Education degree in educational psychology, and an additional Master of Education degree in educational leadership, Hunt Roden went on to teach K-5 general music and fifth grade beginning band in Titusville, Pennsylvania. In addition to working as a school psychologist, Jennifer is a strong advocate for fair funding for the Erie School District based on her strong belief that a child's quality of education should not be dictated by his or her zip code. "Young people in Erie must rise up and put pressure on the state legislators who devalue public education," she says. "This is a pivotal time of great moral implication. The future of our city depends on having an educated population." Hunt Roden is also a freelance vocalist, yoga practitioner, and passionate outdoor enthusiast who enjoys hiking and mountain climbing.
Brett Johnson, 34
Mercyhurst University Assistant Professor, Theater Program Director
Energized. Dynamic. A consummate professional.
Those are a few of the ways 34-year-old Brett Johnson is described by his peers.
He's credited with basically singlehandedly resurrecting Mercyhurst University's theater arts program and reestablishing its theater minor. He has also directed nearly a dozen challenging productions, including Eurydice, Urinetown, and The Laramie Project.
He's brought important folks such as world-renowned performers Chita Rivera and Elizabeth Ashley to Erie for public speaking events, and also keeps a close working relationship with citywide groups and organizations such as the Greater Erie Council on Equality.
Johnson says he believes that theater – like all arts – is a positive force that enhances everyone's quality of life. "I strive to create work that lifts the spirit, galvanizes the intellect, stimulates curiosity, nurtures open-mindedness, and increases our sensitivity to the values of others," he says.
"The young artists with whom I've had the pleasure of working over the past four years are talented, compassionate, driven individuals. They challenge and inspire me daily, and make Erie a better place to live through their contributions to an already vibrant arts community."
Safia Kassir, 31
Creator of On Trend Social Marketing
When the staff at the Erie Times-News needed a local voice to reflect upon marriage equality, they turned to entrepreneur and activist Safia Kessir. In an op-ed published last May, this Clarion University graduate remembered feeling a "sense of validation for those who have been cast out by family – judged, bullied, assaulted, killed, or becoming suicidal because of their sexual orientation." Kassir combines vocal advocacy for the LGBTQI community in Erie with a keen business sense that helps others to succeed.
She currently serves as an assistant to the director of the Coffee Club Divas, a local women's networking group designed to prioritize entrepreneurial goals. Earlier this year, she was nominated for the "Woman of the Year" award by the Women's Roundtable of Northwest Pennsylvania. She is also the creator of On Trend Social Marketing, a female-focused social media company designed to provide small business owners with an empowering digital boost. In all of her endeavors, she strives to promote "a new way of thinking free of intolerance and adversity which ultimately holds the power, creating a change for good."
Amanda Kochirka, 28
Business and Technology Commercialization Consultant, Gannon Small Business Development Center; Co-chair, Athena Circle of Trust
A graduate and current master's degree student at Gannon University, Meadville native Amanda Kochirka works with clients to start and grow small businesses in Erie, and also to bring new technologies to life on the local level through Gannon's Small Business Development Center.
Beyond that, she puts her energies into empowering local women as well, co-chairing the Athena Circle of Trust, which works to facilitate the successes of emerging female leaders and entrepreneurs throughout the community.
A former "pageant girl," she was crowned Miss Meadville Area in 2004 and performed over 150 hours of community service within her platform, breast cancer awareness (a cause that has always been near to her heart, since her mother beat breast cancer some years earlier). On top of all her other good works, she continues to volunteer with the American Cancer Society today.
"What I love about emerging leaders in Erie is that we're willing to work together to form new partnerships and collaborations where there was hesitance to do so before," Kochirka says. "Those partnerships will build a stronger, more productive community."
Abbey Lynn Krysiak, 29
Pharmacist and Photographer
Abbey Lynn Krysiak attributes her success to her determination and effort to be the best in her profession; plus she likes to keep busy. From DuBois, Krysiak attended Gannon University for her pre-pharmacy studies and LECOM for her Doctorate of Pharmacy. Currently, she works at LECOM as an assistant professor and at the Millcreek Community Hospital as a clinical pharmacist in the behavioral health unit. She takes students on rotation at the hospital and works with them to hold community events that raise awareness for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and more. It's the students who inspire her. "They understand that they have a great avenue as healthcare professionals to make a large impact," Krysiak says. She has been named teacher of the year on several occasions. Additionally, Krysiak enjoys operating her business, Abbey Lynn Photography, which specializes in newborn and maternity photography. She began over four years ago, and now has two children of her own to photograph.
Afrim Latifi, 28
Licensed Sales Professional, Allstate Insurance; Soccer Coach, Erie Admirals and Gannon University
Afrim Latifi leads something of a double life. At Allstate Insurance, he encourages our community to make responsible financial decisions about their most valuable assets. When he's not at work, he's passionately devoted to soccer. Presently, he's the head coach for the Erie Admirals Soccer Club, as well as the assistant coach for Gannon's women's team. Prior to that, he served as the head coach for Villa Maria Academy High School, where they won the PIAA class AA championship in 2015. He was 27 at the time, which made him the youngest coach in Pennsylvania history to win a state championship. Latifi spent his early childhood in Kosovo, arrived in Erie in 1999, and earned bachelor's and master's degrees at Gannon University. He believes that we need "young, driven, motivated, and determined people to make Erie a better place to work and live." We can learn a lot by following his example.
Nicole Lavery, 36
Director of Vision and Youth Services, Sight Center of NWPA; Co-founder, Co-owner Lavery Brewing Company
Ask Nicole Lavery what her secret is and she'll tell you that she fears mediocrity but that she isn't afraid to take risks. At the Sight Center of NWPA, she ensures visually impaired children don't miss out on fulfilling childhood experience due to vision loss.
When she's at her other work – Lavery Brewing Company – she's economically and culturally impacting the region (and brewing delicious, multiple-award-winning beers). And when she's home, she's the proud mother of three. Add in serving on the L'Arche Erie Board and recently completing a Doctorate of Occupational Therapy from Chatham University, and you know that Erie needn't fear mediocrity with risk-taking folks like Nicole Lavery calling it home.
Lavery says Erie "can only change as much as those around it inspire it to change," adding that she sees "young people in Erie desiring change, and gaining a voice and body which is gaining momentum. My hope is that those who are afraid of change realize it will make things better and that remaining status quo is not an option."
Amanda Loose, 32
Bayfront Maritime Center Program Coordinator
Amanda Loose started working at the Bayfront Maritime Center (BMC) 17 years ago as a sailing instructor. Loose attended Mercyhurst Preparatory School before studying at Edinboro University. Following graduation, Loose left for rural Alaska where she taught grades four through 12 in a two-room schoolhouse. However, she returned to her hometown where she uses her skills in a "more meaningful way." Loose coordinates the BMC's Project SAIL – an after-school job skills development program – and the Bayfront Summer Credit Recovery Program, which works with Erie high school students. She wears many hats, but she has the "whatever-it-takes attitude" to successfully juggle all her responsibilities. Loose has helped hundreds of students, who have struggled in traditional learning environments, to transition back into their normal schools and graduate from high school. She hopes to leave an impact on the students, but knows the students have impacted her. "While we teach our students about life," she says, "our students teach us what life is all about."
Jessica Makowski, 37
Clerk, Erie County Public Library; Co-creator of the Erie Library Local Music Project
While performing everyday duties such as clerical work and customer service, Jessica Makowski goes above and beyond to form connections with the great people of our community in order to make Erie an even better city. In addition to lending her skill to the functions of the library, she also endeavors to call attention to local musicians.
As co-creator of the Erie Library Local Music Project, Makowski has a hand in collecting and organizing a catalog of local artists' CDs to highlight their talent and help them gain exposure. She works hard to raise awareness of the importance of supporting local musicians in order to keep the Erie music scene thriving. "Erie's local music is a part of our culture as well as our history, and I'm thrilled to be a part of not only highlighting that, but also preserving it," Makowski says. "I strive to connect the people of our community to the information they need to improve their lives, as well as to other like-minded individuals."
Tavon Markov, 35
Erie Art Museum Operations and Events Manager; Owner, Horizontal Experiment Productions
Tavon Markov is described as a can-do (and, will-do) kind of guy – whether that means helping a friend fix a furnace or steering the production of a major local music event.
Add to it that he's lived in the Gem City for 34-and-a-half of his 35 years, and you've got just the kind of young professional – driven, artistic, talented, and dedicated to his hometown – that Erie's arts scene needs.
He says that throughout his life, music has been his main motivator. Launching his own studio, Horizontal Experiment Productions, he began recording and producing local singer-songwriters and hip-hop acts as early as the late 90s. And after beginning to study business management and marketing, Markov entered the fray of live music production at local clubs.
He could soon be found behind the soundboard at Erie music hotspots including the Docksider, the Crooked i, and, more recently, the Kings Rook Club. He's also been the sound engineer for local country legends Next of Kin over the past few years, and, in 2015, took on a well-deserved gig as operations and events manager for the Erie Art Museum.
In Erie, he says, driven young professionals "are the ones to inherit the torch. They are the ones that will be influencing and ultimately making the decisions that will sculpt the future of our city. They are the workers, the business owners, the employers – the visionaries of the future. They face all odds to forge their way in this crazy mixed up world we live in. We have the drive, passion, desire and conviction to effect change in our community."
Mario Mazza, 39
General Manager and Enologist at Mazza Wines
The Mazza family sowed its fortunes in the vineyards, but their fields have grown beyond the grapevines under Mario's stewardship. Just as long as they stay there – Mazza is committed to preserving area farmlands against the slow creep of sprawl. "I hope that by creating these products we provide a viable market for local agriculture, which will keep our region beautiful by keeping ag-land from being turned into housing," he says.
As the general manager and enologist at Mazza, he oversees production from grape or grain to bottle (as opposed to a viticulturist, who addresses the planting/growing aspects – a different subdivision). Mazza has spent most of his life in the Great Lakes area – North East High School and then Case Western University in Cleveland – before receiving his master's in oenology down under in Adelaide, Australia. Besides Five & 20's distilled spirits, nothing warms him quite like young people "breathing new life, ideas, and enthusiasm into our community." We could certainly use more of that vintage.
KC McCloskey, 35
Director, Footlights Theatre Program; Area Theater Arts Teacher
KC McCloskey is the wearer of several hats, all of them in the style of youth theater.
And whether she's teaching performing arts classes to homeschooled students, running the drama club and directing spring musicals at Westlake Middle School, or steering the Footlights Theatre Program for youth throughout the Gem City and Erie County, she's making a dramatic impact on young people's lives.
"Theatre arts benefit students on a number of levels, socially, academically, and emotionally," says the Harborcreek native and Edinboro University of Pennsylvania graduate. "What I do, especially [with] Footlights, is helping the students in Erie grow in all [of those] areas."
She adds, "I believe in them and support them, and that's the best gift we can give to our students."
Tiffany LaDonna McCloud, 34
CEO & Founder of HER P.O.W.E.R. Inc. and Adjunct Professor at Gannon University
As a child, McCloud struggled with reading and speech. Later, however, she not only won the U.S. Academic Decathlon speech competition, but held the national record for several years. A graduate of East High School in Erie, she received a B.A. in marriage and family therapy from Mercyhurst University and later went on to receive her master's degree in social work.
Today, she is a licensed social worker who teaches at Gannon University while also staying busy as the chief executive of HER P.O.W.E.R., an organization that provides consulting services for women in business. She is also certified in Autism Spectrum Disorder and Multisystemic Therapy.
She is admittedly tough on herself and extremely competitive, putting forth every effort to make her best better. "As the late Mr. Robert Barney would say, 'Good, Better, Best; never let it rest, until your good is better and your better is your best,'" she says. "What you will be is what you are now becoming."
Angela McNair, 35
Owner/Director at Jump Start Early Learning Center, LLC
Since Angela McNair was 15 years old, she has wanted to own and operate a childcare facility. In 2016, that dream came true. As the founder and director of Jump Start Early Learning Center, LLC – a thriving educational childcare facility in the same building as the Booker T. Washington Center in Erie – McNair is expanding upon her eight years of experience with trauma-focused therapy in our community. She holds a MSW from the University of Pittsburgh.
McNair graduated from Central High School, and now helps guide it as an active member of the Erie School Board, She hosts the "Better Together" family workshop series at East High School. The events teach young people about college applications, career readiness, environmental stewardship, and money management techniques. Additionally, she serves on the Governor's Commission on African American Affairs. As if that's not enough, this mother of five is the driving force behind the annual "Erie Rips the Runway" fashion show in the school's auditorium. Inspired by the "creative and hungry spirit" she recognizes in our community, she dedicates herself to an impressive array of community events, which she designs to "raise awareness, reduce violence, and increase unity."
George Morgan III, 33
Vocational Counselor; Academic Success Coach; Adjunct Professor at Mercyhurst University
In his professional and personal life, George Morgan III prioritizes service to his community above all else. As a counselor and academic success coach at Mercyhurst North East, he helps young people set firm goals to ensure academic progress. This work often takes unusual and inspiring forms – building on his love of hip hop (especially Notorious B.I.G.), he has organized open mic nights at the university that encourage musical expression, creative writing, and strong dialogues between students.
But Morgan doesn't stop there. He's also the vice president of the Erie chapter of the NAACP, where he shares his belief in equality for all people. He also serves as board chairman of the Human Relations Commission of Erie County, where he works to eliminate discrimination in housing, hiring practices, and public accommodations. As if that's not enough, being the father of a one-year-old daughter keeps him pretty busy as well. Morgan describes himself as part of a new generation of local leadership, which is "gracefully taking the baton, working with and standing on the shoulders of our older, well-versed leaders." We couldn't have put it better ourselves.
Jason Pero, 39
Owner and President of Pero Real Estate
Jason Pero strives to "make Erie a better place to live one property at a time." He owns and operates approximately 400 apartments in the Erie area with his wife, Nadia. Pero attended North East High School and studied public relations at Westminster College. Shortly after completing his education, Pero left his job as a medical device professional to focus on real estate. He believes that if landlords, investors, individual home owners, and renters all do their part, Erie can become a better place to live. He stresses the importance of continual improvement and strongly believes that Erie, with all its young people, is "on the upswing." He says, "The people that recognize this will benefit greatly." Additionally, Pero loves spending time with his wife and two children. He is a proud Cleveland Cavaliers fan and an avid music collector, as he currently has over 4,000 titles and 1,000 vinyl records.
Anthony Sardini, 26
Music Teacher and Owner of Accurate Performers Music School
Music instructor Anthony Sardini has struck a resounding chord with his clientele. His students are singing the praises of the Accurate Performers Music School, where the former personal trainer helps children and adults of all ages bulk up their skill sets and solidify their self-esteem. Sardini studied voice, piano performance, and composition at Mercyhurst University for one year before transferring to the prestigious Berklee School of Music, where he concentrated on pop and rock piano. Whereas public schools are scaling back on education, Sardini and his staff (which includes violin instructor Brianna Morrow and vocal coach Abigail Franc) are stepping it up, guiding over 250 students a week. No musical background? Don't fret – that is, unless you're learning the guitar, banjo, mandolin, or ukulele. The musically illiterate can also learn how to reed on the trumpet or harmonica. Or perhaps the drums will stick. Whatever the case, Sardini is passionate about Erieites getting in sync with their passions, and in turn, enhancing their quality of life.
Ashley Sayre de Rivas, 29
Ashley Sayre de Rivas is best known for creating some of the most delectable sushi in town. After graduating from Mercyhurst University with a degree in Spanish and Japanese language and culture, Sayre de Rivas began working as a chef at 1201 Kitchen where she honed her sushi making skills. She continued pursuing her dream of being a chef when she moved to New York City to work as a sous chef for Daniel Boulud for two years. Her passion for Latin and Asian cultures is obvious in the tastes she creates. "The goal of my work is to share my passion for world cultures through food," Sayre de Rivas says. "I hope that sharing a dish might spark an interest in that culture and give someone an opportunity to try something they might not commonly find around Erie." She is currently working at Bourbon Barrel under Tony Mammana while sporadically doing pop-up kitchens at Kings Rook Club. She plans to continue acting on her goal of making Erie a more culturally savvy place by opening up a food truck, specializing in international cuisine. She is also working toward starting a local community kitchen.
Annie Schmitt, 29
Co-director, Box of Light, Erie Studio
Schmitt grew up just a block from Jude Shingle in the South Hills of Pittsburgh. Luckily for Erie, the two met and are now the force behind Box of Light.
Although Schmitt joined Box of Light after Shingle, her origins in art started well before her arrival in Erie. She received a B.A. in political science and environmental art from Allegheny College. Later she earned a permaculture design certificate from Cornell.
Working with children from all districts and populations, Schmitt has a unique cross perspective on education in Erie. She enjoys giving students the tools and freedom to create, and then stepping back and watching their minds go to work. "It's incredible to see how newfound confidence ripples out into the rest of their lives," she says.
In her spare time, Schmitt enjoys gardening and farming wherever she can, especially if it's a strange or heirloom vegetable. She believes that youthfulness is a mindset that we should all try to adapt to, "it's open, it's playful, it's risky – and it's what Erie needs!"
Bill Scholz, 30
Co-founder, Radius CoWork
If you've never entered a co-work space, the concept might conjure up the image of cubicled wasteland where people spend their days working independent of some rube in another cube. Bill Scholz knew better. As the co-founder of Radius CoWork on the ninth floor of the Renaissance Centre in downtown Erie, Scholz wanted to create a space that would bring people into the city's downtown and would, most importantly, foster a much deeper sense of community.
He received a master's degree from the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) in economics after graduating from Cathedral Prep and Gannon University. His time abroad helped the Erie native develop a context for the complexities facing his hometown and his role in its future. "Erie faces significant challenges revitalizing its Urban Core and competing in the global economy," Scholz says. "Young people are special to Erie because we are building innovative businesses that overcome Erie's toughest challenges."
Jude Shingle, 30
Co-director, Box of Light, Erie Studio
Box of Light has served over 3,000 young people this year through classes and school workshops. The educational non-profit studio puts innovation at the forefront of learning, using technology to create workshops for students.
Participants actually make electronics, movies, and video games at the State Street location, they don't just consume them. "Young people are demanding to be makers; to develop their creative capacity," Shingle says. "Box of Light is becoming a place where they can realize their creative power."
Shingle is a Pittsburgh native and received a B.A. in studio art from Allegheny College. There, he met Box of Light's co-director, now his spouse. He's no stranger to the art world: He's an award-winning filmmaker, has participated in several artist residencies, worked at the Erie Art Museum for two years, and taught film classes at the Inner City Neighborhood Art House.
Shingle insists that he's "actually very boring," but his packed schedule suggests otherwise. That, and his Minecraft t-shirt.
Rebecca Styn, 39
Foundation Director of the Regional Cancer Center
Throw a stone in Erie and you're likely to hit either a person or organization Rebecca Styn has somehow worked with or helped. Currently, as foundation director, she's responsible for leading the communications, marketing, fund development, and community relations for the Regional Cancer Center, while also studying to complete her doctorate in organizational leadership at Gannon University.
She obtained a bachelor's degree in music at Mercyhurst University (she's been known to rock out in several local bands), and earned a master's of public administration from Gannon (put well into action through leading various prior organizations, serving on numerous boards, running for elected office [twice], assisting other candidates' campaigns, and racking up bylines for several publications). She's done this, she says, "in an effort to challenge our community to be better and stronger – and to help others get involved," adding, "we have the greatest asset any city could ask for: the people. We just need to empower them."
Ally Thomas, 29
Education Coordinator, Erie Art Museum
Ally Thomas can sing in 10 languages. "My favorite song is in Nepali and it's about eating mangos out of a tree until your belly hurts," she says. She learned the song as part of an Erie Art Museum folk art program, for which she secured a major grant, called Old Songs New Opportunities.
The program brings students, families, refugees, and artists together in order to teach each other songs that "communicate sweet stories from their cultures," as Thomas pleasantly puts it. The program also works with the refugees to collect children's songs from all over the world. So far, they have sung in Arabic, French, Swahili, and Nepali.
Originally from Erie, Thomas attended the University of Pittsburgh where she received a B.A. in art history and anthropology. She later returned to Pitt in 2010 to receive her teaching certificate.
In addition to her other fun duties at the museum (making tea with preschoolers in a Chinese pottery exhibit, for example) she is also the project coordinator for the Big Picture Mural Project. She loves Erie and the youthfulness of the city, "Young people in Erie are a special breed: intrinsically motivated, wildly creative, and eager to collaborate with each other."
Jason Wallace, 36
Owner and President of McClymonds-Wallace Trucking & Supply Co.
Jason Wallace is extremely hardworking, and has been for quite some time. After graduating from Fairview High School, he began his successful career in the military. Wallace was a cadet at the United States Air Force Academy, graduating from the competitive academy in 2004. He saw three overseas deployments, being stationed at Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan and as a Captain at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico until 2010. He now holds the rank of Major with the United States Air Force Reserves. After his active duty, he began building his family's business. His grandfather, Dale McClymonds, along with his great uncle, founded their Pittsburgh trucking businesses in the 1940s. Focusing in on the Erie area, Wallace has built his business up into the largest landscape suppliers in the area. They manufacture and dye their own mulch using 100 percent recycled tree products. "I wanted to start something of my own in Erie to keep the family name going, and to provide people with a quality service and product at a low cost," he explains. "Today, combined, we employ over 500 people."
Shawn Waskiewicz, 39
Executive Director of the Niagara League
Shawn Waskiewicz will not give up the ships – and that's a good thing for a city that made its reputation wrighting them (Oliver Hazard Perry's fleet, War of 1812) and focused on righting itself now. The U.S. Brig Niagara is not only the flagship of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it is an essential and inextricable aspect of our civic heritage. As executive director of the Flagship Niagara League, Waskiewicz balances the ledgers and does everything he can to keep the boat afloat, including gaining sponsorships and fundraising.
The Harbor Creek graduate holds a bachelor's degree from Edinboro University in business administration and a master's in organizational leadership from Mercyhurst University. This September will mark the second Tall Ships Festival Waskiewicz has facilitated since his hiring in 2012. This summer, the tall ships will sail all five Great Lakes before porting at Erie for the highly profitable festival, which draws tens of thousands of tourists into the city. He hopes that it's all hands on deck as Erie sails towards its future. "I ask our youth to be change agents, be willing to adapt to change, and help your fellow neighbor make our city great once again."
Steve Weiser, 36
Executive Director of the Erie Philharmonic
Erie Philharmonic Executive Director Steve Weiser is a self-proclaimed nerd, professing an affinity for Star Wars, The X-Files, video games, and Marvel Comics – but above all, he is a music fanboy. Weiser took the helm of the Philharmonic in August 2015 and has been conducting an orchestral sweep of the Erie area ever since, helping to drag an increased interest in classical music out of the pit. There is no tremolo to Weiser's unwavering commitment to the community, which includes master classes, free performances, and educational programs for every age.
His driving purpose is to open the curtain for those who could or would otherwise not attend a concert at the Warner Theatre, including 5,000 Erie's Public Schools students through an outreach initiative last season. His harmonious relationship with the city (he moved to Erie from Reading) and his fellow musicians (he was percussionist with the Chamber Orchestra three years prior to his appointment) should easily sustain itself with all the applause he's earned so far.
Nicole Wethli, 32
Assistant Facilitator, Erie Together
Nicole Wethli always wanted to be a teacher. That's what brought her to Gannon University to pursue a B.S. in business, computer, and information technology education. She intended on returning home to Dayton, Ohio; but when she graduated, Welthi couldn't pass up the opportunity to play a role in the future of her adopted home.
Today she is the assistant facilitator for Erie Together – a countywide anti-poverty initiative launched in 2009 by Mercyhurst University, United Way of Erie County, and GECAC – where she leads several volunteer teams working to prevent and reduce poverty in Erie. "Every day, I have the privilege of working with community volunteers who inspire me with their passion and dedication to the Erie community," she says.
Brandon Wiley, 27
Executive Director of Opened Eyes
In an era where political partisanship and institutional racism often prevent substantive dialogues from occurring, Brandon Wiley is helping to bring people together. In 2014 – as tense standoffs between activists and police were erupting across the country – he founded Opened Eyes, a diversity awareness campaign that offers programming and workshops to local schools and businesses.These events often begin with a simple question: What are you?
For Wiley, who earned his master's in clinical mental health counseling at Gannon University in 2013, the answer involves a combination of African-American, Italian, and Native American ancestry. As others are asked this question, Opened Eyes hopes to inspire people to think critically about where they come from and open up to conversations that may exceed their comfort zone. At Corry Counseling Services, Wiley works with young people in need of skills to modify their behavior. He also recently became a licensed professional counselor and opened a private practice of his own.
Written by: Erie Reader Staff
Photos by: Brad Triana