Erie's 40 Under 40: Class of 2020
Innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders united in their push to get Erie over the hill
Like Sisyphus of Greek myth, Erie has been fighting an uphill battle for what's seemed an eternity. Straining against decades of inertia and pessimism, it's been a constant push to get over the hill. If only we could build up enough momentum amongst ourselves to clear its crest, we might send our old burdens hurtling down the other side, free to visualize the infinite horizons in front of us.
Many who figure to be part of the "over-the-hill" gang when that happens are actually not yet "over the hill" — at least not in the traditional sense of the phrase. Age is but a number, and 40 is an arbitrary milestone — persons on either side of it can and do affect meaningful change. However, it is our young adults that have the greatest role yet to play in transforming Erie into the diverse, prosperous, and inclusive destination we know it can be.
There's no way we flip Erie's script without harnessing the talents and ambitions of youth, and that is why we annually celebrate Erie's 40 Under 40. During an unprecedented year marked by dread and uncertainty, our eighth class represents another welcome dose of hope, strength, and resilience to emerge better than ever.
We can't wait.
Written by: Jonathan Burdick (JB), Chloe Forbes (CF), Ben Speggen (BS), Rebecca Styn (RS), Cara Suppa (CS), Matt Swanseger (MS), Nick Warren (NW), and Jim Wertz (JW).
Photographs by Jessica Hunter.
Interested in nominating someone for next year's list? Online nominations are open now.
Jacob Bartko has built his career with Community Access Media, serving as an intern in 2010, then production assistant, and ultimately becoming executive director in 2014. Through his role at CAM Erie, he gives a meaningful television production platform to hundreds of individuals and organizations. His work impacts many businesses, non-profit organizations, and individuals with small budgets, providing an economical outlet for creativity that may not otherwise be expressed.
Additionally, he is also involved in the community in many other ways. He dedicates his time serving on the board of directors of Junior Achievement of NWPA, as a member of two committees for the Young Erie Professionals (YEP), and as a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). He has also previously volunteered to work with middle school youth through the Erie City Mission's Urban University program.
"Over the past ten years, I have worked to help numerous individuals and organizations bring their ideas to life by sharing their message. Working with the Erie residents from all different backgrounds, professions, and ethnicities has been the most rewarding experience of my career at CAM."
He believes in giving people a platform and a voice. "Our organization was founded on the premise of freedom of speech. Every single person in our community, no matter their skin color, education level, or financial stability deserves the opportunity to be heard. My mission is to provide them the tools and resources they need to make their thoughts, ideas, and dreams come to life."
When he's not working, he can be found attending an Indians or Browns game, camping in the Allegheny Mountains, indulging at one of Erie County's craft breweries, or enjoying a beautiful Lake Erie sunset with his wife MacKenzie at their favorite spot in North Springfield. — RS
We might take for granted that when we turn the sink handle and fill our glasses from the spigot, clean water comes out. Likewise, we might not think about how the Erie watershed provides that drinkable water to more than 200,000 people throughout the area; supports, directly and indirectly, thousands of jobs; and provides a diverse variety of recreational opportunities.
We may also not think about the policy work that goes into ensuring that the water stays clean. But thankfully for those of us not thinking of that, Sarah Bennett's on the job.
At PennFuture, this 37-year-old Sturgis, Mich. native serves as the campaign manager for Clear Water Advocacy, organizing a group of non-governmental organizations to develop a common agenda for Clean Water Advocacy in the Lake Erie watershed. From meeting with area and state leaders to community groups, this Michigan State University alumna who earned both her bachelor's degree (with high honors) and master's degree in zoology (with a concentration in ecology, evolutionary biology, and behavior), is helping to inform and guide policy for the best management practices to protect our region's water resources.
"I want to help lead Erie to make forward-thinking decisions to build a thriving, healthy, sustainable city with opportunities for everyone to succeed," says the former Mercyhurst University biology faculty member of 12 years. When she's not enjoying time camping with family, cooking and baking for friends and family, or playing soccer, this sister to six siblings stays active by serving on the Keep Erie County Beautiful advisory board and the advisory committee for Erie 2030, as well as being a member of the Northwestern Pennsylvania Chapter of Sigma Xi. — BS
Art is important, right now and always. "Art has a positive impact on people," Rachel Berlin explained.
It's no surprise then, that Berlin essentially lives her life for art.
Whether she's creating her own works, or helping others do the same, Berlin is making the world a more colorful place.
Originally from Jamestown, N.Y., she received her associate's degree from Jamestown Community College. She then went on to Edinboro University, where she was awarded her bachelor's and later her master's degree in art education.
Her work has been seen all over Erie, from the Cummings Gallery at Mercyhurst to Pointe Four Vintage Boutique and The Tipsy Bean. She's donated pieces to EmergyCare, The Epilepsy Project, as well as to local schools. She even curated a monthly art supply subscription service known as RLB Artbox, the item that kicked off the Reader's inaugural locally-made holiday gift list.
Perhaps what she's most proud of though, is "creating an art space that allows individuals to feel safe, confident, and create amazing art and have experiences that will last a lifetime."
That place is RLB Art Studio. There, she hosts classes, workshops, lessons, art parties, and a weeklong art camp.
She's also an avid gardener, paddleboarder, skier, and hiker. Her love for nature and water in particular led her to be a competitive swimmer and lifeguard.
Still, her heart's with art.
"Creating has always been a big part of who I am," she happily admits. "When I'm not involved in some sort of project a part of me feels void. I love creating art and helping others do the same. Realizing our creativeness is a treasure, and it feeds our souls." — NW
"My parents raised me with so much love and acceptance that helping other people has always been what I wake up for," says this Erie native. "Practice kindness and patience with your loved ones and let that overflow for strangers. Create a space for tolerance and acceptance in your heart and home."
The Iroquois High School alumna, who went on to earn her bachelor's degree in English from Edinboro University with a concentration in literature and writing, practices what she preaches, surrounding herself with positivity. After losing her father, Bill, last year to cancer, and her stepmother Ginger just days before this publication, she "truly grasped how fleeting life can be" so she "soaks up every minute of time I can spend with my hilarious, creative, and all-around awesome 18-year old son, Dylan," going to shows and on road trips.
As a product analyst for Erie Insurance, Beveridge assesses market demand for Erie Insurance product offerings. Outside the office, however, volunteerism is always in demand. Beveridge is an active presence with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, St. Martin's Center, Community Shelter Services, and the Erie Community Garden — despite gardening not being her strong suit.
While her father "could grow anything," this ukulele player, who rocks a mean cover of Rob Zombie's "Dragula," admits she watered a plastic cactus for two years. Nevertheless, she took the lead on the 20 raised garden beds alongside the Holland Street parking garage, and from empty beds she — with the help of many folks willing to nurture not only the produce, but also her through her grief — grew over 1,000 pounds of food for the Erie City Mission in just one year.
"Don't ever allow anyone to tell you that empathy is a weakness," she says. "And if someone slams a door in the face of what you are passionate about, look yourself square in the mirror and tell the world: 'Underestimate me; that will be fun.'" — BS
Eric Brotherson is an Erieite who is truly passionate about his community. In addition to his career with the Erie Federal Credit Union, he serves as a board member and co-chair of the Tobacco Cessation Program with the American Heart Association, creative director for Young Erie Professionals (YEP), an MIS advisory board member for Penn State Behrend's Black School of Business, an advisory board member for Marquis Software, and Wellness Program chair for the credit union. He thrives in an environment where things are constantly changing, affording him opportunities to grow professionally and personally.
When Eric's not volunteering or working, he enjoys skiing, art, traveling, and of course, spending time with his family and two puppies — Ollie and Archie.
As for his future hopes? "I want to influence, grow, and inspire existing and future generations of Erie. Erie is a destination and has so many assets; we should grow together and make it better!"
He also considers himself shy. "This might be a surprise to some, but I am a shy person initially. However, get me to open up and we will have a long-lasting friendship."
Eric holds a Bachelor of Science in Management Information Systems, an associate's degree in business administration, and is SAP certified. Two fun and probably little-known facts about Eric? He enjoys participating in ghost investigations and has 10 — yes, 10 — tattoos. — RS
From the microphone to the transmitting antenna, Aaron Coseo is responsible for all the equipment needed to broadcast WQLN PBS/NPR. He has worked at WQLN for 15 years, starting as a board operator right out of college and making his way up to director. His commitment to the station stems from his love of Erie.
When he's not enjoying time with his family, Coseo is a man with a plan. He has designed and installed the broadcast facilities for WQLN PBS, WQLN NPR, and Mercyhurst University, and is the chief engineer for LakerTV at Mercyhurst and WERG-FM at Gannon. Any local content creation, including concert recordings, debates, documentaries, educational programming, local event promotion, and even the recent news conferences led by County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper have all been coordinated by Coseo. Programs like Sounds Around Town and Erie Eats are some of his most noteworthy productions.
"I want WQLN to be a platform for Erieites to showcase their talents or passions," says Coseo. "No matter what happens, it's important to me that our viewers and listeners have the programming they rely on to stay informed, entertained, and safe." — CF
Emily Crofoot, the supervisor of high impact prevention for the Northwest Rural AIDS Alliance, is here to bridge the very real gap in the public's knowledge of HIV and where the facts stand today. The North East native and Mercyhurst University grad supervises the HIV High Impact Prevention program, "which provides education, outreach, and training to the Erie community about HIV, in order to educate about the disease and reduce the stigma."
In addition to her work through Northwest, Crofoot is a member of the Erie County HIV task force and the LGBTQ+ Advisory board to Mayor Schember, making HIV education and testing accessible to all and advocating for equality. It supports her vision of a more accepting and inclusive Erie.
"I believe that educating the various communities with cultural competency and inclusion training, speakers, outreach, and community events could begin the process to assist in the divide and acceptance of diversity," Crofoot says.
And even with two beloved hounds, an appreciation for the outdoors, and a badass motorcycle hobby, Crofoot also finds time to further invest in her community by running a social skills group for adults on the autism spectrum through KaleidAScope, Inc. — CS
Charlotte Marr de Vries is instrumental in engineering the Penn State Behrend experience. Working on different committees, she is an advocate for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) along with broadening the participation of other underrepresented demographics in engineering.
She has been involved in projects spanning from a NASA fellowship working for the International Space Station in 2017, to utilizing 3D printers in libraries to print assistive living products for the elderly communities of Erie during quarantine. After working for NASA's Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS) Group, she introduced a first-year engineering project at Penn State Behrend where students design a line-following robot. She also oversaw a senior project, where students designed a microwave control tuner for ECLSS. She believes that her duty as an educator is to "make sure that the path to success is both achievable and visible to all students within the Erie School System."
When she's not busy creating opportunities for her students, she can be found creating escape rooms in her garage or hosting a game night with her husband and two-year-old daughter. She was also a soprano in the Erie Philharmonic Chorus prior to quarantine. The one piece of advice she gives her students is, "you never want to self-select, if there is something you want, you should always at least try for it."
Her tenacity has paid off as she is now a woman of many hats, including a Penn State Nittany Lion hat she knitted herself. — CF
In a world of professionals, Amanda Duncan is a boss. Anyone that's worked with her should be able to attest that she quickly becomes the person to look to. When that room is filled with some of the biggest movers and shakers in Erie? Amanda is still very much that person. Focused, trustworthy, and somehow still able to crack a joke while answering countless questions, Amanda is a leader among leaders.
In addition to her work with YEP, she's a member of the Athena Circle of Trust, an AmeriCorps alumna, a donor for the Mid-Atlantic Mothers' Milk Bank, and a mother of three.
Duncan is also quite the cook, and would have likely been a chef in another life. "I come from a big Sicilian family and we live life through food," she explained. "Cooking is my love language. In my pandemic boredom, I've taken to hosting an occasional cooking show on my Instagram and working to translate some of my favorite recipes to a blog."
Graduating from McDowell, she went on to earn degrees in psychology and public policy management from the University of Pittsburgh and their Graduate School for Public and International Affairs. She then went on to serve the Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience (PULSE) as their recruitment and partnership coordinator.
"When I moved back three years ago, I felt like I was starting from scratch," she admitted. "My personal goal was to take what I had learned about successful community development in Pittsburgh and apply it here."
And apply it she did. Breathing new life into YEP, she proved "that Erie's young leaders are here to step up and lead. We aren't asking permission anymore. We are taking our rightful seat at the table and demanding change and action to make Erie a place we are proud to call home." — NW
"What I want to do to make Erie a better place is always be accessible and helpful for our youth," says the Erie born-and-bred Jason Easter, who prioritizes volunteering in his life. "It takes a village to raise a child — at one point I was exactly that child."
Those familiar with Easter might know of the Cathedral Prep grad's spot on the 2000 Rambler roster that won the state championship title in football. Or that while at Prep he also ran track. Or that he went on to study marketing at Gannon University. Or that he serves on the Board of Directors of Bayfront NATO Inc., as well as the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center. Or that he's a volunteer coach with many local sports organizations. Or that he's a certified autism professional volunteer with the Sandals Foundation, where during his day job as the regional business development manager for the resort company, he identifies and develops strategic business relationships with industry partners and potential customers.
What many might not know is that he was raised by a single mother who passed away when he was just four years old, whose grandmother took over raising him until she passed on when he was just 13 years old, leaving his 23-year-old aunt to care for him with the help of other supportive family members and coaches throughout his childhood.
"I love that my sons, kids I coached, and youth I have interacted with not only see me now, but know the story of how I got where I am today," says the 38-year-old father of three sons — Devin, Gavin, and Jaxson — with his wife, Meghan. "By coming together and putting others first, our community is way stronger than we know at building each other up." — BS
One could easily imagine the Elliot family crest framed in ribbons of adding machine tape. Chris, his three brothers, and his father are all accountants — go figure(s).
"We are quite the party when we are all together, as you can only imagine five accountants would be," he quips.
Certainly, number-crunching is in Elliott's blood. Six months removed from college, he passed all four sections of the CPA licensing exam on his first attempt — a feat matched by less than 10 percent of his peers. More than that, however, he credits hard work, a willingness to learn, and the support of others for elevating him to a leadership role with one of Erie's largest nonprofits. Since becoming the vice president of the Barber National Institute's finance department at the age of 32, Elliott has helped it achieve its goal of improving the lives of individuals with disabilities, guiding sound monetary decisions and directing staff with aplomb.
Although he laments not having more time to volunteer in the community — he is the father of three small children, after all — he is grateful to work for an organization with whom he has such a strong personal connection. Elliot's son was born with a rare genetic condition that limits his ability to communicate, rendering his future "one big question mark."
A hobby gardener with a nurturing mentality, Elliott affirmed that "helping kids and adults, just like my son, throughout the Erie region, by supporting local organizations that do great work, is something I want to do to make Erie a better place for all its citizens." — MS
In 2014, after years of struggling with anxiety and depression, Derick Fiedler began exploring the concept of mindfulness: the idea that you can accept that some parts of life are unpleasant without either stifling those feelings inward or getting caught up in those feelings emotionally.
He began traveling and living out of his backpack, a self-help journey that eventually led to him chronicling his personal struggles with mental health for a mindfulness project he calls "The Paradigm Journals."
"Since fourth grade, anxiety attacks would seemingly come out of nowhere. Wherever I was, I'd suddenly become stricken in an instant by physical pain, clenching my chest, gasping for air, covered in sweat," one of his essays reads, before describing some of the steps he took on his own journey to overcome such attacks.
By 2017, he was giving a TEDx Talk at Penn State Behrend on the stigma surrounding depression. He was recognized by Governor Tom Wolf at the Pennsylvania State Dinner, was the official speaker for the National Alliance on Mental Illness for Erie County, and secured a two-year grant-funded position at Penn State Behrend as their mental health outreach coordinator. He also began sharing his story and message on college campuses, middle schools, high schools, and even the Erie Reader itself, hoping to help remove the stigma surrounding depression and anxiety.
"Derick's presentation made a profound impact on many of our students, as he was able to connect with them on a very realistic level," praised Andrew Krahe, Harborcreek Junior High School's principal.
"In 2011, Erie was ranked the fourth most depressed city in the country," Fiedler says. "I believe the opposite of depression and addiction is connection. Connection to ourselves, to nature, and our neighbors."
That connection has been key to his own journey coping with anxiety and depression, but also is central to his mindfulness movement. He hopes to film a short documentary in Vietnam for "The Paradigm Journals" next year. — JB
To truly be invested in a community and its future goes beyond simply being a citizen. Patrick Fisher exemplifies this in many ways , being not only the executive director of Erie Arts & Culture, but also part of several organizations that ensure culture and creativity are woven into the fabric of everyday life here in Erie.
Born in Erie and raised in Cochranton, he went on to receive his associate's degree in sports and entertainment promotional management at Northwood University, then got his bachelor's degree in business administration from Penn State Behrend. He worked in the airline industry for seven years, lived in Alaska for three years starting a peony farm, then spent a year traveling North America in a camper. He's been straightedge (an ethos championing abstinence from drugs and alcohol owing debt to the hardcore music scene) since age 15 and vegan since he was 21. He still enjoys hiking, day trips to surrounding cities, reading, cooking, attending cultural events and art exhibitions, and spending time with his two three-legged dogs.
Fisher holds many roles in the Erie community, including spots on the Erie Downtown Partnership's Board of Directors, the City of Erie's Better Together Council and Active Transportation Plan Steering Committee, Erie County's Destination Erie/Emerge 2040 Steering Committee, the Hamot Health Foundation's Board of Corporators, and the Awesome Foundation's Our West Bayfront Chapter as a founding trustee.
"I believe that our region can be a magnet for cultural and creative professionals where non-profit cultural organizations and for-profit creative industries can thrive," Fisher said. "I want our sector to lead the way to a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive community — improving the social equity and cultural vitality of the area." — CF
Ejay Fyke is a community organizer who works in political spaces. He served in a leadership role on Attorney Ron DiNicola's 2018 bid for Congress in the 16th District and helped launch the 2020 congressional campaign of 40 Under 40 alumna Kristy Gnibus before joining the Pennsylvania Democratic Party as a field organizer for the 2020 election cycle.
But the work of this Erie Central High School and Edinboro University graduate transcends politics. Fyke volunteers for the Police Athletic League that serves kids in the City of Erie; he worked tirelessly organizing for the community college effort on behalf of Empower Erie, the non-profit that drove the educational initiative; and he's secured funding and support from the Erie County Court of Common Pleas and Erie County Adult Probation for a program called Energize Erie that will work with at-risk teens in the city of Erie.
"I just want to help as many people as I can, however I can," Fyke says.
To that end, this father of two is working on his master's degree in organizational leadership from Mercyhurst University and he serves on the executive boards of the Erie County Democratic Party and Mi Corazon, an Erie based nonprofit that works to bring aid and education to children throughout the Philippines. — JW
To try to name all the things Maria Gangemi does would be a job all on its own, but simply put she is an advocate. The General McLane graduate received degrees from both Brown College and Edinboro University. She is also a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. When she's not contributing to the production of events like Celebrate Erie, playing in her band, The Pageville Project, making art, or gardening, she is creating an environment where music and performance can thrive in Erie.
"Music and performing arts unite a community," Gangemi states. "The connection between musicians on a stage and a body of thousands of concert attendees creates an extraordinary exchange of kinetic energy. This reciprocity dispels individual differences, encourages a welcome distraction from the world's problems, and brings people together through a common unforgettable, entertaining experience."
One of her favorite experiences was curating and booking the musical and live performance talent on all five stages of Celebrate Erie 2019, as well as debuting the Living Room Stage. Unlike other areas in the festival's history, this stage allowed local singer-songwriters and acoustic artists to share their talent. She also co-founded the Arts and Drafts Festival alongside Drew Kauffman, a local photographer who shared the same vision of bringing music, art, and beer together.
In the future, she's already hoping to work with other like-minded individuals who share the same passion she does in promoting the abundant talent of musicians and performers in Erie. — JW
As impressive as her academic resume is — a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science and dual master's degrees in parks and resource management and environmental education — it is her decade of hands-on experience in environmental issues that makes Melissa Goodwill such a standout among her peers.
Goodwill, an avid outdoors person and runner, leads the Asbury Woods Nature Center's education programming and ambassador wildlife care, the former of which involves heading up a team that "provides curriculum-based visits to over 12,000 students every year."
"I want to grow new partnerships and build upon existing partnerships that Asbury Woods has ... to help youth living in the city of Erie have the opportunity to ... build a stronger connection with the natural world," she says.
Goodwill was also the brainpower behind the new low ropes course at Asbury, proving she's not afraid to mix a little play into her work. In addition to hobbies like travel, reading and hiking, she is a dedicated volunteer at the Tamarack Wildlife Center, where she rescues and transports injured animals.
Goodwill's nominator remarked, "Melissa's dedication to the environment has had [and will have] an incredibly positive impact on students of all levels, adults, wildlife, and the green spaces of Erie for many years." — CS
Emmy Hackshaw maintains a healthy interest in a number of things — including photography, camping, hiking, biking, gardening, scuba diving, skiing, dog-walking, and reading — but ranking first is health. As senior participant recruiter for the All of Us research program through her alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh (Master of Health Administration in Policy in Management), Hackshaw seeks to engage and educate the community through public health research.
Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), All of Us is one of the more ambitious health research efforts in U.S. history, with a participation goal of 1 million Americans from a diversity of backgrounds. The program will examine how biology, lifestyle, and environment intersect to influence the overall health of both individuals and communities. It's the first study of its kind to come to Erie, and researchers hope to use its insights to develop improved treatments and preventatives for a variety of diseases.
Like herself, Hackshaw wants all of us to be able to live life to the fullest right here in the Gem City. "I want to continue to be a positive advocate for Erie, encourage young people to seek opportunity here, and be an ally for inclusion and diversity in our community."
A leader by example in both her professional and personal lives, Hackshaw finds time in between her various hobbies to serve on the Erie Art Museum Board and Department of Human Services' Mental Health and Intellectual Disability Advisory Board, as well as the campaign committee for Kristy (Gnibus) for Congress.
This newly-certified birth doula would like to see Erie more than crawl — she would like to see it take its next big stride forward. — MS
Picture a two-story home on wheels carrying anywhere from 100 to 400 tons of material. For those drawing a blank, we're describing a locomotive.
As an electrical packaging engineer for off-highway vehicles by day, this 30-year-old Danielsville, Pennsylvania native who now calls Erie home doesn't have to picture it — she lives it, designing control group assemblies that direct the vehicle's engine and controls electrical power circuits at Wabtec. And she and her colleagues have earned awards for that work, including one for Subsystem Design of the Year and Outstanding Product Launch at their internal Engineering Awards ceremony for two major product launches with global customers.
When this Northampton High School alumna with bachelor's and master's degrees from Stony Brook University in mechanical engineering (and a grad certificate in additive manufacturing and design from Penn State University) isn't working with heavy machinery, you can find her volunteering as a mentor with the FIRST Robotics Team 291 and participating as a presenter for STEM outreach programs such as Wabtec Girls and Math Options. In fact, her nominators were quick to point out her commitment to serving as a role model and inspiring and mentoring women interested in STEM careers.
When she's not indulging her creative side — she plays several musical instruments and enjoys drawing and painting — or spending time with her husband and their two German shepherds while out backpacking, canoeing, or otherwise enjoying the great outdoors, she volunteers with Make-A-Wish and the Boys & Girls Club in addition to events like Bids for Kids, which notched over $2 million to local charity chapters.
"For young adults who may not have this exposure, I want to continue serving as an early education mentor for career opportunity outreach, especially for my own STEM/STEAM fields," she says (STEAM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics). — BS
As director of CORE, Dr. James Hodge oversees a number of youth wellness initiatives, including the Mentor Project, Positive Youth Development, and the Community Schools Initiative, which includes a partnership with Iroquois Elementary School. In 2019, James led training programs for 225 youth mentors at 11 sites in Erie County. He also led two youth summits, with 237 students from 13 schools.
He is a board member for Emma's Footprints, which helps families navigate the loss of a child through miscarriage, stillbirth or infant death. He serves on the executive committees of UnifiedErie and the Erie Coalition for a Trauma-Informed Community.
"I love Erie, and I firmly believe in the vision for Erie's future," says the Florida native and Penn State Behrend graduate. "It is clearly evident that so many people are investing significant time and resources into making Erie an even better place for its residents, and transforming the area into a true destination city. Our youth hold a large part of the key to making this vision for Erie a reality, and it is extremely rewarding to work closely with this cohort every day to promote growth and resilience." — JW
"I don't know that I have any answers to making Erie a better place, but I am committed to being a good person and spreading kindness, knowledge, and any other resources I possess to others in hopes that it will cause a ripple effect to inspire others to do the same," says this 33-year-old Lake City native.
Aside from serving as the right-hand woman to the CEO and founder of ApexDrop, where she serves as a self-described "gatekeeper" that helps prioritize the flow of business on a daily basis at the fast-growing marketing startup, the Girard High School alumna who went on to study justice administration at the University of Louisville also leads ApexCares, a committee of more than a dozen employees that was created to foster a culture of giving back to the community.
Under her leadership over the past year, the group's members have supported a growing number of nonprofits in a variety of ways, ranging from organizing volunteer efforts to support Habitat for Humanity to working a COVID-19 cleaning and sanitizing supply drive for the Erie City Mission's Grace House to supporting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's Out of the Darkness Walk in Erie, among many others.
When she's not working, she enjoys creating memories and sharing experiences with her family and appreciates spending time at Presque Isle because "being near the water is my 'happy place.'"
The "handywoman" of the house, she loves putting things together and "cannot wait to have a She-Shed!" But on the day she celebrates that, you won't find any balloons anywhere near her, as she admits she suffers from globophobia. — BS
A song a day keeps the stagnation away. Early on in his 38th year, local musician Tony Kellogg challenged himself to write an original song a day, every day, for 365 consecutive days — and upload a performance of it online. It wasn't easy, but the former Eagle Scout and Totin' Chip recipient just kept hacking away at it (Totin' Chip = the Boy Scouts of America's certificate of axe-wielding eligibility).
"When I started my 'original song a day for a year' project (TK365), I thought I had way more material — turns out I had to write 290 songs in the end!"
That's more material than many artists' entire discographies, with the predominantly acoustic tunes showcasing a wide spectrum of moods, colors, and styles, although the blues were never too far from the center. What else would you expect from the frontman of the TK Blues Company? His performances with that group and contributions to several others have made him a fixture of Erie's live music scene, with a sense of workmanship and authenticity behind his craft that both listeners and fellow musicians truly admire.
Not only does Kellogg keep his creative wheels spinning, but he also keeps Erie cyclists' wheels spinning as a bicycle mechanic with Competitive Gear. As with songwriting, he has been delighted to learn the process of building and repairing bikes as he's gone along, gaining an appreciation of how the parts fit together. Now he hopes Erie will follow suit.
An avid cyclist himself, Kellogg explained that he "would love to see bicycle transportation used and tolerated throughout the city; and also a newfound appreciation for original music through larger city events."
That's a vision he doesn't have to peddle to us. — MS
A little birdie told us Laura-Marie Koitsch's accomplishments were worthy of sitting up and taking notice of. More accurately, a small flock of them — Koitsch was one of this year's most-nominated candidates.
They weren't just flapping their gums; Koitsch is involved in a flutter of conservation, research, public education, and public outreach efforts in our community. Not only is she co-founder of Erie Bird Observatory, a migratory bird research station at Presque Isle State Park, but she's also actively engaged in the Eastern Bird Banding Association (council member), the Regional Science Consortium (board member), the Presque Isle Audubon, Flagship Niagara League, Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh (via Powdermill Nature Reserve), Tamarack Wildlife Center, Wilson Ornithological Society, and Association of Field Ornithologists.
A bird in Koitsch's hands is worth two in her tireless conservational push, as she maintains a dually sharp focus in both learning about (once going as far as Antarctica to do so!) and teaching about migratory avifauna. Throughout the year, she's busy carefully observing, banding, and tracking avian populations while also eagerly sharing her passion with the public. During these educational sessions, she is able to readily cultivate a newfound appreciation of and awe in the wondrous natural world found right here in Erie's backyard — referring to it as a sort of magic that transcends language and culture barriers.
These endeavors are not just noble; they're vital. "Much of my work centers around trying to make Erie a better place for both the people and for the birds that inhabit it. What's really cool is that these aren't mutually exclusive, they're very much intertwined — make things better for one group and you make things better for both. Birds are indicator species — they provide valuable information on the overall condition of an ecosystem and of other species in that ecosystem." That means you, humans. — MS
As technical director at Hero BX, Holly oversees fuel quality testing labs and research and development for all three HBX locations. She also serves as HBX quality management representative for the BQ-9000 Producer Program (for national biodiesel accreditation) and previously helped design and create the Penn State Behrend BioDiesel lab. Through this work, she helps reduce a reliance on fossil fuel-based products, and promote the industry of clean bio-diesel
Her work has also not gone without notice, as in 2019, she was nominated and approved to represent Biodiesel Producers as a "commissioner" for the National Biodiesel Accreditation Commission. Commissioners design, implement, and improve BQ-9000 programs, as well as review and approve audits for marketers, producers, retailers, and labs seeking BQ-9000 accreditation.
She holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from Allegheny College and in her free time, she enjoys spending time with her husband and children — outdoors. "We hike, canoe, fish, swim, and ski."
Little known fact — Holly graduated high school as co-valedictorian.
As for what she wants to do to make Erie a better place? "It all starts with educating our youth. I want to continue outreach in local schools and universities, as well as engage with students at STEAM and science fairs to promote renewable energy and capture their interest in science careers. If we provide the tools, they have the power to make an impact for future generations." — RS
"Pure dead brilliant" is the phrase Scots would use to describe something or someone exceptionally good. In this case, we're using it to describe Chris Lantinen, who has strong ties to Edinboro University, receiving his bachelor's and master's degrees at Edinboro (and their Scotsmen of the fighting variety), then moving up the ranks to emerge as a leader.
In addition to being a teacher and advisor, Lantinen was a freelance producer for Atlantic Records' podcast department; and from 2010-2019, he built and ran Modern-Vinyl.com, which gave daily updates on new releases and more, reaching 2.6 million readers a year. The latter spawned The Modern Vinyl Podcast, a music podcast now known as Stereo Confidential. The podcast accumulated over 250,000 downloads and won the music category of the 2018 Podcast Awards, beating out nine other nominees across the country. After his success with the podcast, he wanted to turn his attention back to the local news scene.
Lantinen took lead in the construction of the new, state-of-the-art podcast studio within Edinboro's Baron-Forness Library. In addition to being part of Edinboro's Center for Branding and Strategic Communication, he is the advisor for the university's newspaper, The Spectator.
News is something that he is passionate about, saying, "Helping put creative, empathetic, and morally strong journalists out into the world helps everyone, including Erie, stay informed and helps fight against the 'fake news' narrative."
"There's something special about the 'Boro that keeps students coming back, and it's not just Flip Café." — CF
Aaron Loncki has been responsible for helping move the City of Erie forward through strategic marketing efforts within Mayor Joe Schember's administration. As part of that role, he has worked to transform Celebrate Erie into an economic development tool for the region, while also making the event an inclusive and representative showcase of the community-at-large. It's serious business for someone elected class clown. "I'm most proud of the work our team did over the past three years to refresh the CelebrateErie brand and make it about Erie — our artists, our performers, our vendors, all those who come to the event."
Aaron has also worked to resurrect the Fourth of July fireworks in Downtown Erie, and has made transformational improvements to the Sounds of Summer music series that is featured in Erie's senior communities. Most recently, he was part of a group of public relations professionals that launched the #WeGotThisErie campaign to show unity and boost morale during the early months of COVID-19.
In addition to his roles supporting the city, Aaron also serves as a board member for VisitErie. And although he works most of the time, on rare occasions you can find him at Asbury Woods, skiing at the Peak, or "attempting" (his words) to make tamales. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Strategic and Visual Communication from Mercyhurst University.
As for his thoughts about our community? "It's time to show Erie that we are more, we deserve more, and we can be more. I want to surround myself with good people and do cool shit." — RS
If you regularly enjoy the goods or services of an entrepreneur in the Erie area, there's a chance Jacob Marsh may be at least partially to thank.
Marsh, an Edinboro native with a biochemistry degree who shifted career paths so that he could "help develop, fund, implement and lead programs and projects that help students engage further with industry and the community" at Penn State Behrend, runs Behrend's Innovation Commons Lab. In addition, Marsh works tirelessly behind the scenes to aid new entrepreneurs in this area through the NWPA Innovation Beehive Network, a collaboration between local universities to help expand business and development.
His initial career background has given him a unique and ultimately crucial perspective. "I spent a lot of time in science," Marsh explains. "It taught me a lot, especially about being wrong. Wrong is a normal step; it's most of the steps, really."
Marsh, a gamer, reader, golfer and active member at McLane Church (where he leads a young adult study group) reminds us to "care first." Why? "Your work will go further," he explains. "More and more people care about Erie. I'm one of them, and I want to help as many people as I can to succeed." — CS
Former bouncer turned entrepreneur RJ Messenger may look tough, but don't let that fool you. He says he's terrified of "spiders, blood, flying, and much more." One thing that he does not shy away from, however, is the dogged pursuit of his goals — and inspiring others to do the same.
"I want to make Erie a better place by proving to people that you can come from any background and lifestyle, and no matter your age, race, sex, or your past, that you can be as successful as you want to be as long as you work your ass off towards it, every single day, and not let the opinions and views of others get in your way."
As a second-degree black belt in tae kwon do, former hardcore drummer, and third-place finisher in the Junior Olympics, Messenger has fought hard for his accomplishments, which include the Disrupt Erie Awards' "People's Champion" Award in 2015, an Erie Reader's Best Of Erie award for Best Local Entrepreneur three times (2016, 2018, and 2019), and even more widespread attention by way of a Jay-Z music video appearance and his on-screen and real-life partnership with billionaire Glenn Stearns on the Discovery Channel reality series Undercover Billionaire, which saw Stearns betting big on a new dining venture appropriately christened Underdog BBQ.
Between all that protein and a clothing line synonymous with pumping iron, Messenger has found plenty of fuel to uplift Erie and its national profile in ways very few his age ever have, tossing aside plenty of naysayers, doubters, and second-guessers along the way. — MS
For over 20 years, Fred Oakman has been making some of the best original music around. It's the kind of music that touches your heart in an indelible way. "In my formative years I became entirely invested in punk rock music and I fortunately discovered something early in life that I've been able to remain passionate about," he described.
He founded The Twirpentines back in 1997, with the band dissolving in 2003 after providing countless live singalongs. Oakman then brought his Marshall guitar cabinet — with its duct-taped "Gordie" adornment (one of his many nods to Stand By Me) — over to his new project, Signal Home, and in 2006 the band "had a record deal that resulted in a distribution agreement with Sony. It was surreal to walk into any major music retail store and find our album next to the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins and The Silversun Pickups."
Fast forward to 2020 and the kid from Meadville is making some of the best music of his career. His 2019 solo album My Gasoline Heart was the best-reviewed local release at the Reader that year, and his backing band, The Flood were there for dozens of unforgettable local shows for a perfect alt-county sound.
On top of all of this, Oakman — an Edinboro alum — works by day as an income maintenance casework supervisor for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. There he makes sure those in need are represented, distributing assignments and supervising public assistance benefits.
He's an avid runner and gardener too, having "come to appreciate the irrefutable balance of patience and reward" recently. There's also his impressive G.I. Joe collection and PS This is Awesome, the Playstation podcast he's co-hosted with (Flood bassist) Jake Peters since 2016.
He's also one of the most sincere people you'll ever meet, which just might be the secret ingredient that makes his music so memorable.
It's like he says in the titular track off his latest album, "I'll try my very best to make the most of this." — NW
In 1988, Gannon founded the Center for Social Concerns, which was designed to inspire students and campus colleagues to pursue "purposeful service, exploration, and action for the common good" both locally and globally.
Today, Becky Perry serves as its director. A native of Rochester, N.Y., Perry graduated with her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Gannon University and her Master of Arts in History from Ohio University. She began working at Gannon University in 2013 as a part-time property manager of a building serving international students as well as an adjunct in the History Department. From there, she worked as a full-time resident director, then the assistant director of global initiatives, before she moved into her current position, which she describes as her "dream job."
"I'm grateful my work allows for many opportunities to serve and collaborate with community partners in Erie and globally through community engagement in Erie and service trips around the world," she says. "My work and life are often integrated and blend together. I strive to find as much joy in each day as possible and to humbly learn through life's lessons."
Outside of work, she enjoys traveling, running, spending time with family and friends, and exploring Erie's many breweries, businesses, and nature escapes. Her other goals outside of work include starting a family, running a marathon, and completing an Ironman Triathlon.
In her role with CSCGE, she oversees programming for students that includes service and community engagement opportunities, advocacy and awareness building, and cultural immersion experiences where they "come to know the gift of humbly serving, learning, and listening to our neighbors" and are "challenged to reflect on these experiences and broaden their worldview." She has accompanied over 100 Gannon students on a dozen trips, visiting communities in Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
"I'm grateful to feel deeply called to my work and vocation at Gannon, a calling that challenges me every day to find new ways to better serve our students, Gannon family, and our local and global neighbors," Perry adds. "I know I can do more to walk with my neighbors to bring about and fight for an Erie that is on fire for equity, justice, and community for all. After living in Erie for the majority of my adult life, it is home, and I want to see every member of our community truly thrive." — JB
"Jeremy Peterson's dynamic leadership continues to allow for the transformation of the Erie Metro Transit Authority from a simple transit company to a tech-driven, green driven and customer-focused organization," wrote one of several nominators of this America's Who's Who in 2019 recipient who's been behind the wheel of the Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority since April 2019. Driving operations, the 39-year-old manages a total of 229 employees and has steered the EMTA through two labor contracts.
This Erie native received the 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania Award for his efforts in constructing the EMTA's capital project, a $72 million initiative in the midtown area of the City of Erie. The McDowell High School alumnus who went on to Mercyhurst University (and played D1 hockey during this time as a Laker) has notably brought in more than $14 million in operating grant money — in 2019 alone — while also overseeing the biggest bus purchase in the history of the authority, which has also been recognized as a model agency given his proactive safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Keeping his love of hockey on solid ice, this member of the American Public Transit Association and Pennsylvania Public Transit Association serves as a board member for the 2021 Women's Frozen Four Tournament, is an active member of the Cathedral Prep Hockey Club, and coaches youth hockey. A father of two, he enjoys watching his son play travel hockey and baseball and his daughter's cheerleading at Clarion University with his wife Leanne. — BS
As the truancy prevention manager at the Multicultural Community Resource Center (MCRC), Padma Rai is the bridge between the refugee community, the Erie School District, and the County Courthouse. Many refugees coming to the United States aren't aware of what truancy is and what to do when their children become truant. Reiterating the connection between education and opportunity, Rai seeks to improve attendance rates and set New Americans on the path to becoming active and productive contributors to society, as so many have before.
Much of her duty as a social worker comes down to helping people understand and respect cultural and individual differences. Rai continues these efforts as the national and international outreach coordinator for the Bhutanese Kirat Rai Organization of America. The Kirat Rai are descendants of the ancient Kirata Kingdom of the Himalayas (in present-day Nepal and neighboring Bhutan), with a worldwide presence. Their twice-annual Sakela festival, highlighted by a ritual dance in tribute to nature's cycles, has helped spread awareness and respect for Nepali and Bhutanese culture wherever the Kirat Rai have settled (including right here in Erie).
Through her other various community roles, Rai helps people in need with day-to-day basics such as grocery shopping and getting kids to school events, little things that many people take for granted. Making a new home on the opposite side of the world can seem like a mountainous climb at times, but Rai is selflessly committed to making the adjustment feel a little less steep. — JW
Armando Reyes is an artist, a musician, a literal Boy Scout (who now leads a Cub Scout pack in Erie), and an entrepreneur who hopes his skills can help others discover creative and economic empowerment through education, sharing ideas and resources, and art.
A Chicago native, Reyes moved to Erie to take a job as a luxury automobile technician, but his passion for woodwork and the community led him to start his own business and to use that platform to help serve others. Through his Lake Erie Woodworks venture, Reyes began hosting what he calls the "Table Saw Supper Club," which connects woodworkers from all over Erie and of all skill levels to share ideas and resources. He's hoping that platform leads to the establishment of a woodworking school to benefit those who would like to take on DIY projects around the house, as well as those looking for career opportunities.
"I'm hoping the school can take it even further and provide classes and workshops to really elevate the craft and artistry here in Erie," Reyes says. "I think Erie needs to focus on generational change. If we focus on long term solutions like education, housing, and sustainable well-paying jobs, we will begin to create the foundation for REAL change in our city. That is what I want to focus on, teaching people in Erie real skills that they can use to rebuild our city." — JW
The people of Erie need to be heard. Andrey Rosado is making sure that happens.
The founder and mouthpiece for Erie Equal, Rosado was transported virtually overnight to the forefront of Erie's conversation on civil rights. Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police, the nation saw massive tides of protests, and Erie was no exception. On Saturday, May 30, one of those protests ended in violence. Property was damaged, people were hurt. Hannah Silbaugh was kicked to the ground — in a lawsuit that names Officer Marc Nelson — in a video that was seen around the world.
The next day, Rosado, who grew up in Erie and moved back after going to high school in Middletown, Conn., started Erie Equal. Beginning as an online Facebook group, it now boasts over 3,000 members. There were growing pains along the way, but Rosado remains steadfast and committed to the Black Lives Matter movement.
In August, Rosado — who works as a car salesman — was featured in a USA Today collaborative article that highlighted 12 young activists from around the country in a piece titled "Justice in My Town." Each individual received a specific moniker, and Rosado's was appropriately "The Closer."
Now seeking to make Erie Equal a registered nonprofit, he's been meeting with top local leaders like Mayor Joe Schember and Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper. Rosado's job is to translate the group's concerns into actionable items. With goals like reallocating police funding to social programs, an increase in outreach programs to move beyond minimum wage, and greater representation for people of color in education and other places of power, like Erie's elected officials, they have a clear road ahead of them.
"I want to enhance the quality of life for those who are oppressed and underrepresented," Rosado explained. "I will create real change to benefit my minority family, friends and neighbors to ensure we all have the tools needed to live healthier, happier, safer, and more prosperous lives." — NW
For years, Erie's inner-city residents have wandered a food desert spanning most of our oldest neighborhoods. Erie native and McDowell grad Carrie B. Sachse decided that wasn't happening on her watch any longer, so she launched French Street Farms in 2016, with its inaugural growing season underway in 2018.
"From day one the farm's mission has been to give people in Erie more and better access to fresh, locally grown food," Sachse said. "The most obvious way I am working to achieve that is by farming, of course, but I know that I will never be able to single-handedly feed the entire city."
Not for lack of trying. Sachse, who is currently pursuing her Master of Urban Planning degree from the University of Buffalo and who has been proudly sober for two years, is a common presence at local farmer's markets and sold out her 2020 CSA program. But she has always recognized the need to do more.
"So the other big way that I hope to achieve the farm's mission is by inspiring others to grow food," she said. Enter Victory Garden packs, giftable ready-to-plant kits intended to teach and encourage home gardening.
"We can eat better…and take enormous satisfaction in knowing where our food is coming from," said Sachse. — CS
In her professional role, Erin is responsible for fulfilling the mission of the Junior Achievement by implementing education programs and fundraising activities in Crawford, Erie, Lawrence, Mercer, Warren, Forest, and Venango counties. And although this in its own right is no small feat, Erin continues to be actively involved in many community initiatives.
She serves as TEDx Erie co-curator, on the Catholic Charities Counseling and Adoption Services board as interim president, as a Career Street advisory board member, and as a board member of Northwest PA Job Connect. In addition, she serves as part of ATHENA Erie Powerlink, as advisory panelist and committee leader of ATHENA Erie, and as a member of the Circles of Trust cohort and Young Erie Professionals. And that's not even the complete list.
"I live for being out in the community and making connections for others, both personally and professionally. Entertaining is my passion project. As a secret caterer, I make elaborate spreads for my own events and for friends."
Erin holds two master's degrees (public administration and higher education administration) and a bachelor of science (advertising). Because of her background, she has also worked for the University of Notre Dame and at Disney World.
Her secret to success? "Be annoyingly persistent."
And even though she has lived elsewhere, she doesn't understand why so many people say "there's nothing to do in Erie." She offers, "If you want ideas on what to do in Erie to make it your happiest place on earth, come talk to me, I'll help you find it. — RS
Fairview native Cam Spaeder says he "tried to be a plumber for a while." We're glad that didn't work out. That's because Spaeder is now a partner in the Majestic Baking Company and helped revitalize this staple of Erie's Little Italy following its closing in 2019 after nearly 100 years in operation. In doing so, Spaeder rebooted a business that is a part of the history and fabric of the neighborhood, and he used his business to help those in need through bread donations to community shelter services and the Sisters of Saint Joseph Neighborhood Network.
"I like making radical bread," Spaeder says. "I want to provide nutritious bread for Erie, and show that straying from the beaten path is a viable option for those who are growing up here."
Majestic breads are available at the Whole Foods Co-Op and Oasis Market in addition to the bakery itself. Earlier this year, they teamed up with Erie's French Street Farms to provide the bread for a farm-to-table, plant-based meal served up in the kitchen at Oasis Market, and are looking forward to more collaborations with other local businesses.
That sounds remarkable and delicious. — JW
Since graduating from Edinboro University with a bachelor's degree in psychology and master's in rehabilitation counseling, Rochester, N.Y. native Angelica Spraggins has made Erie her home.
"Once I realized Erie would be my home, my goal has been to make it feel that way," Spraggins says. "My goal in making Erie a better place is to make sure people of color and members of the queer community feel at home."
If that has been her goal, one she shares with her wife (and 40 Under 40 alum) Davona Pacley, she is clearly succeeding: she currently works as a therapist for a minority-owned business providing therapeutic services for black, queer youth as well as co-founding Erie's Black Wall Street (EBWS), a local nonprofit meant to empower and promote black entrepreneurship through promotion, networking, and cultivation. On Erie Gives Day, EBWS met their goal of raising $10,000 and already have plans for moving the organization forward.
"Angel works without need or desire of acknowledgment which makes her even more deserving of the recognition," friend and also 40 Under 40 alum Tyler Titus says. "I cannot iterate in a way that accurately captures all that Angel does for our community or the powerful force of change that she has brought to Erie."
Spraggins cites the love and guidance of her parents for creating a fire in her to help others.
"My mother and father are completely responsible for my drive and ambitions," she says. "My mother is retired from the school district of Rochester, New York and my father served in the Air Force and then worked for the post office. Their hard work and persistence is what drives me. My father made sure that I was a strong competitor, not raising me within gender norms but allowing me to find my own path and passions. My mother taught me Black history almost every day to remind me of where I came from and to be proud." — JB
Kyra Taylor is bearing down to create a bull market for Erie's African American-owned businesses.
Together with fellow 40 Under 40s Davona Pacley (2019) and Angelica Spraggins (2020), Taylor founded the nonprofit Erie's Black Wall Street, whose mission is "be a vehicle for change and empowerment of Erie's Black Community through cultivating meaningful relationships, education of members, the creation of social networks, and the promotion of black entrepreneurship." Through these initiatives, Erie's Black Wall Street hopes to "create a culture of Black excellence and wealth that serves as an inspiration for generations to come. We like to call it Erie's Black Renaissance!"
The Edinboro University and New Castle Senior High graduate's community investment portfolio stretches from middle school to her membership in the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority to her current caseworker role with Erie County, making her an ideal partner in executing Erie Black Wall Street's vision, according to Pacley. Over those nearly two decades, Taylor has successfully planned events, recruited volunteers, and implemented fundraisers toward a number of causes — predominantly right here in Erie.
Nominators bought high on Taylor's "big heart" and work ethic, which had occurred predominantly under-the-radar. Now that she is registering on Erie's major indices, we hope her family-oriented, no-nonsense mentality (she cites a deep admiration for Judge Judy's human lie detector abilities) guides a historically underserved and underestimated population to great dividends. — MS
Even if you don't know Ceasar Westbrook's name, it's likely you know his work. If you have been to Dobbins Landing in the past year, you've likely seen the stunning massive public art mural on the second-floor observation deck, which German artist Rafael Gerlach designed with Westbrook's assistance. A few days after finishing that mural, he went on to win the Chalk Walk at Celebrate Erie.
A Lancaster native, IUP graduate, and current art teacher in the Erie School District, Westbrook has become a recognizable figure in the local art community in recent years. From designing the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration uniform for the Erie Bayhawks, to leading weekly classes at the downtown Erie YMCA's Teen Center, to selling his own custom art and apparel, to teaching art in Erie's public schools, Westbrook shows no signs of slowing down.
"With my work, my objective is to create something that moves people," he told Erie Arts & Culture, which recently commissioned a mural downtown to be painted by Westbrook and Antonio Howard to honor Luther Manus Jr., a retired Erie school teacher. "I like to create very bright, poppy images that grab the viewer's attention … [and] are thought-provoking pieces."
"With a wide-ranging style, Westbrook creates bold, invigorating work," Nick Warren wrote in the Erie Reader earlier this year. "Combining skilled draftsmanship and rendering with a lush, intense color palette, he is able to blend both worlds in art that leaves an indelible impression."
One thing is clear: Westbrook will continue to leave an impression on Erie for the foreseeable future. — JB
A few years ago, during what is typically the most stark and depressing season, Erie started to sparkle and shine a whole lot brighter on Sundays.
That was thanks to Tom Widdowson, an Erie native and Iroquois High School alum, the tenacious spirit behind Rebecca Mae (his fabulous drag queen alter ego) and the founder of Erie's very first drag brunch series.
From the first, Widdowson's aim has been "to make Erie a place that offers everything a 'big city' would have."
Says Widdowson, "I believe that … LGBTQIA+ events are essential to help build a well-rounded and safe community for everyone." He is happy to be the face of this movement, having been the first drag performer ever at CelebrateErie, and through his skillfully managed social media presence.
The entertainer and gifted make-up artist, who traveled the world as a featured singer for the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines for over a decade, and who bartends at The Zone Dance Club, determinedly willed his brunches into reality and has expanded this offerings to include dinners, bingos, and especially fundraisers.
To foster a more inclusive and welcoming city, Widdowson's events have "worked closely with local nonprofits to … help give back to the community" — and that's his fiercest look of all. — CS