Erie's 40 Under 40: Class of 2022
40 Young Innovators, Entrepreneurs, and Leaders Shaping the Future of Erie
It's so hard to find good help these days — or so they say. But not you. And certainly not us.
We could fill binders with the number of nominations that pour in for Erie's 40 Under 40 annually, proof that there is a surplus of good help these days where our community is concerned. In fact, it's become increasingly difficult choosing just 40 candidates for our final list. Despite doubts early on in the Reader's lifespan, finding 40 worthy candidates each year is clearly no longer an issue (if it ever was).
Case in point — this is now our 10th class of Erie's 40 Under 40, and we are still astounded by the unique impacts Erie's young adults are making on our town and in their respective professions, which run the gamut from counselor to councilwoman, baker to tailor, filmmaker to podcaster, and almost everything and anything in between.
It's perhaps appropriate that 10th anniversaries are traditionally commemorated with tin — it's flexible enough to bend without breaking, resilient enough to stand up to heat without melting. These are attributes that serve us both as individuals and as a community, and they're exemplified by the honorees you're about to meet in these pages.
Do you know someone who you would like to see in the 2023 class? Our online nominations are now open!
Written by: Jonathan Burdick (JB), Erin Phillips (EP), Ben Speggen (BS), Matt Swanseger (MS), Cara Suppa (CS), Amy VanScoter (AVS), Nick Warren (NW), and Jim Wertz (JW)
Photos by: Jessica Hunter
Dr. Zamen Abo-Zebiba is a former prisoner of war who is now leading a liberation front for mental health in Northwestern Pennsylvania.
The mission? To free Erie and its people from the self-restricting and self-destructive mindsets that have held them captive for generations. Equipped with a doctorate in psychology (Chatham University) and a master's in clinical mental health counseling (Gannon University, where she also earned her bachelor's in psychology), Abo-Zebiba helps clients triumph over their internal struggles as both a staff therapist at Gannon University and a licensed professional counselor with her own private practice (offering sliding scale and pro bono services).
"I enjoy empowering people to recognize the control they have in their own lives. I often work with individuals who have experienced trauma and I aim to empower them to acknowledge and accept that they are so much more than their trauma."
It's a lesson the Iraq-born Abo-Zebiba learned firsthand as a refugee of the Gulf War, moving to the United States with her family in the early 1990s and settling in Erie, where she graduated from Collegiate Academy in 2007.
"Erie is considered a safe haven for refugees and immigrants seeking safety and survival. I want to be part of a community that not only provides hope but also helps people build and create meaningful lives." Central to that, she says, is having a voice and having that voice heard — especially as a Muslim woman or member of another marginalized, underrepresented population.
Outside of work, Dr. Zamen Abo-Zebiba passionately advocates for diversity awareness, cultural unity, and positive self-identity as a board member of the nonprofit organization OpenedEyes. Her coworkers would also tell you she makes an amazing latte — which explains how she has the energy to run an Instagram fashion blog, grow gardens, ride horses, and rappel down waterfalls in her spare time. If her current résumé is any indication, her dream of owning a coffee shop would be the foam atop an already impressive career. — MS
At one point, Doug Baker's career path was a bit muddy. Life as a professional motocross racer took him "all over the place," but it had its share of highs and lows. These days, things are going down a lot smoother for the Seneca High School graduate — although he remains addicted to the thrill of split-second decisions (and being everywhere he can, albeit locally). Beyond sourcing good beans, coffee roasting is all about finesse, reading the subtle difference between "too far" and "just right" — a skill he learned at The Lab at Royal New York, which offers beginner to advanced classes in all the subtleties of coffee.
Baker has quickly mastered that balancing act on his way to becoming head roaster at both his own North Edge Craft Coffee and the Mill Creek Coffee Company. Independent of his love of caffeine, he never slept on his own potential: "I thought to myself one day: 'Whatever you are, be a good one.' And to me, that means that whatever you're doing in life, be the best at it. Take pride in everything that you do."
Whether he's roasting coffee, cleaning up Presque Isle beaches, mentoring high school students, or providing encouragement to other small businesses (such as his fellow cohort members at the ErieMade Business Academy), nominators say Baker pours himself into everything does, lauding his friendliness, thoughtfulness, honesty, passion, and work ethic. His enthusiasm for his craft has provided the community a welcome jolt, percolating through local events, grand openings, fundraisers, and festivals.
Outside of his career and volunteer efforts, Baker enjoys golfing, hiking, socializing, gaming, spending time with his family (especially his daughter Oakley), and the ever controversial Hawaiian pizza. "Yes, I said it!" he repeats, bolder than the boldest espresso.
Ultimately, he's not out here to prove whether it's okay to put pineapple on pizza; but he is out here to show people that "it's okay to love Erie." We tend to agree. — MS
"Erie is a beautiful city, it's culturally rich, it's historically significant, and we are growing every single day. Look closely and you'll see creativity being sparked everywhere, a hotbed of artistic talent waiting for the world stage," explains Rick Bowser.
Helping firsthand to shape the cultural landscape of the city through art and music, Bowser is literally living his dreams.
One of the goals he's had since he was young was to have his own music studio. Walking up to the second floor of the 10/20 Collective, you can see — and hear — that vision in action.
Working with local artists like James Myles, Elias If Only, B. Gilly, and Sean Harris, Bowser has helped record tracks for emerging artists and has had plenty of fun doing it. A multi-instrumentalist, he plays keyboards, guitar, and even trombone.
A warm and magnetic personality, Bowser is a true pleasure to work with, whether it be a late night recording session or a buttoned-up business meeting. A native of North East, Pa. and a Gannon University alum, he studied marketing and graduated with honors. In 2019, he found himself heading up a brand new space in town, one that has grown and thrived.
The 10/20 Collective itself has gone from being artist Tom Ferraro's studio to the home of the Lake Erie Ballet and more before eventually finding its identity as an art gallery and events venue.
"If we want to make Erie better, we should keep doing what we're doing, whether it's the growing creative community at 10/20, the diverse array of artists at PACA, the streets now blossoming with murals, or in our tight-knit neighborhoods full of new ideas and the passion to achieve," Bowser wagered, noting that "in short, Erie is already great, so let's keep growing together." — NW
Jasmine Burns could have played it safe; as the customer success manager at Digital Forms (formerly CityGrows), she helps small-to-medium sized governments, including the City of Erie, implement their digital software.
But Burns — who lives full-time in her RV, along with her Cane Corso, Draco, traveling the country, building relationships and living a life of freedom most of us could only imagine — wanted to do more.
So, she founded two companies: Prime Financial Consultants, which offers personal credit consultation services and has helped numerous people repair their credit; and Excursion Seekers, a travel agency which helps people find great deals on vacations, flights, hotels, etc.
Burns, who is an Erie native and Villa Maria Academy grad, and who is currently studying at Purdue Global University for her BS in CyberSecurity, says she contributes to the improvement of Erie by "making sure to lead by example and take action."
"I want to make sure to 'walk the walk,' not just 'talk the talk,'" Burns, who is also a member of the Radius CoWork Community, said.
Her nominators also remarked on how much of a family woman Burns is, inspiring her two younger sisters.
"She's always looking for new opportunities to educate them," one nominator mentioned.
As a precursor to founding Prime Financial Consultants, Burns created books on financial literacy and business courses, things she wished she had known, and things she can give the younger generations.
Burns said, "I will work hard to make sure Erie stays inclusive and diverse. Everyone should be able to experience all the opportunities Erie has to offer." — CS
Emily Butler is a recent transplant to Erie. Born in Pittsburgh, she earned a BA in Anthropology/Archeology from Temple University and master's in preservation studies from Tulane before spending the early part of her career as the director of preservation at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West in Arizona. We are certainly lucky to have her land here as the executive director of the Presque Isle Light Station.
In this position she oversees all three of Erie's historic lighthouses: Presque Isle, the North Pier Light, and the Land Lighthouse. "Having lived in many interesting and dynamic places - New Orleans, Philadelphia, Ohiopyle, and Phoenix - I was a little skeptical of moving here, but could not have been more wrong. Erie has so much culture and community and is an exciting place to be right now!"
Emily is passionate about bringing Erie's Maritime history to life and involving the entire community in her efforts: "I believe that I can make a difference in Erie by making its rich history available to as many people as possible. It is a strange phenomenon that people don't explore their own backyard. I hear all the time that people have lived in Erie their entire lives and didn't know the Land Lighthouse existed. We are working to make these lighthouses accessible and getting Erie connected to this unique and important history."
When Emily isn't overseeing a restoration project, organizing fundraising events (like their upcoming "Red, Blue and White: Summer Fun at the Lights" event in August), creating educational community programming, and being the face of Erie's Maritime History, she enjoys being outdoors with her black lab, Grover, scouring antique stores, and visiting local breweries. — EP
Some people will wait for a door to open to know where to go. Others might try knocking. But some might not even know the door's there — or believe that they have access to it. That's where Cathryn Easterling comes in.
Cathryn and her husband, Anthony, returned to Erie in 2012. She remembers when they were young, "many people poured into us, nurturing and mentoring our skill and abilities. I recognize that I have to be intentional in my efforts in Erie — to pour into my community with my gifts."
Through Bridgeway Capital, this East High School alum drives efforts to seek, identify, and supply underserved businesses with resources, and has mentored 20 members through its entrepreneur accelerator program. The Marshall University grad also provides technical support to small businesses to promote viability, growth, and sustainability while also cultivating community partnerships that provide mutually beneficial support for the community being served.
"I want to see our communities that have been disinvested now thrive from the realization that they, too, have hope, and are not forgotten," says the mother to Aubrey, Austyn, Anthony, and August. "My hope is that I can provide access, facilitate connections, and advocate for equitable change within a community I love so deeply."
Beyond Bridgeway, this identical twin, who loves to listen to Yo-Yo Ma as much as she does Alanis Morissette and Young Jeezy, serves as the board president of Youth Leadership of Erie, facilitated a van donation to a local health center, and spends time with Young Erie Professionals.
One of her nominators wrote of her: "Cathryn is the epitome of what it means to hold space and create opportunities here in Erie!" Cathryn says: "I want to be the change I see." — BS
In September of 2020, during a global pandemic – and just after her wedding – Ernes took over an Erie institution in Glass Growers Gallery, and in turn became an advocate and contributor to the revitalization of downtown Erie.
Graduating from Geneva High School in Geneva, Ohio, Ernes went on to obtain several degrees: a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology (Magna Cum Laude) from Denison University (2011), Master of Public Administration from Gannon University (2017, Outstanding Graduate Student Award), and Master of Business Administration from Gannon University (2020).
Ernes previously worked for seven years in global admissions at Gannon University where she led student groups to Greece, New Zealand, Germany/Austria, and Italy through the T.R.A.V.E.L. Program. Ernes walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago from the south of France across northern Spain alone and has traveled to 20 countries. She also worked as an English teaching assistant in Cordoba, Spain. Ernes brings a global perspective to downtown and has a passion for building communities and providing opportunities for others to build meaningful connections.
"I try to be cognizant of our role in the broader ecosystem and to consider how things interconnect," Ernes said. "I had a strong desire to work in a more creative realm and to connect with the Erie community and am glad I took the leap of faith to purchase Glass Growers Gallery at an uncertain time. I am fortunate to have an amazing team with a combined 35 years of experience, which has helped provide continuity following the change of ownership."
Ernes has provided internship opportunities for students at Penn State Behrend and offered workshops to first year college students as part of Gannon University's Welcome Week to help students become familiar with their downtown neighbors. She enjoys spending time decompressing outdoors by hiking, kayaking, camping, and going to the beach with her husband Richie and dog Hudson. She attends a local book club and is also involved in Our West Bayfront. — AVS
The force is strong with this one. Abigail Fetzner is a self-described geek, and through her work at the Erie County Public Library as well as with the local chapter of the International Star Wars cosplay group, the Starkiller Garrison, she has made embracing one's inner geek a part of her life's work. At Blasco's Idea Lab, Fetzner has been instrumental in the creation of "Maker Kits," interactive kits you can check out from the library to help learn a new skill. She oversees the Erie Makes event, where local makers share their talents with the community. She is also very involved in LibCon, which is a local ComicCon held at Blasco Library.
On top of all of these projects, Abigail volunteers her free time to coordinate events for Erie's chapter of the Starkiller Garrison, attending charity events, in her case in the guise of a Jawa or Tusken Raider: "I love volunteering with them because I get to see children jump with joy when a character they know stands in front of them."
It is this kind of experience that Fetzner hopes to encourage. Whether that's through making something new, getting into comics, books, games (of which she personally owns over 200), or even by tapping into your inner Jawa. Organizing these events for the community isn't just a job for Abigail, it's a passion: "It brings me so much joy to see people who know nothing about each other bond over a shared passion: for families to geek out together, for people to show off their unique stories and art." — EP
Greg Gania is always cooking something up. An avid home chef, you'll often find him in the kitchen experimenting with new recipes to try on friends, although he admits his sense of portioning is at times a bit off. "Coming from a large Greek family, I never learned that cooking for four guests didn't mean to cook enough for 50."
In his multiple roles with the Erie SeaWolves, it's fair to say Gania has a lot of plates spinning at the same time. His duties include overseeing their public relations, entertainment, and baseball operations (e.g. team travel, roster transactions, uniforms, equipment) departments, in addition to serving as the team's lead play-by-play announcer. In between all of these responsibilities and a busy travel schedule (69 regular season away games), he also helps spearhead charitable efforts through the SeaWolves Community Fund, which sponsors events like food bank collections and jersey auctions.
With that many pots on the stove, it's a wonder how Gania keeps UPMC Park from burning down. But not only is the kitchen intact, it's in better shape than ever (thanks to millions of dollars worth of recent stadium upgrades) and serving up some pretty impressive specials. Speaking of Wonders — or should we say Oneders — the That Thing You Do!-themed Wonders Night won the 2021 MiLB Promotion of the Year, a testament to Gania and team president Greg Coleman's (a 40 Under 40 alumnus himself) creative menu planning.
While the Warren, Ohio native has enjoyed and embraced his time in Erie, his goal "was and is to become a full-time Major League broadcaster," an opportunity he received a taste of on Sept. 8, 2018 for the SeaWolves' parent club, the Detroit Tigers. That would be this Jimmy Buffett fan's proverbial cheeseburger in paradise. — MS
Though Louis Geramita hails from Pittsburgh, he has put down some serious roots in Erie and the Erie community.
The 25-year-old founded Primo Tailoring in 2020, opening up a storefront on the 400 block of State Street and joining what has become known as "The Shops at 5th & State."
Stepping inside Primo, Geramita has created an almost otherworldly experience, taking customers back to a time before fast fashion and mass-produced clothing. Primo specializes in tailoring for men and women, an art that has faded, perhaps, but is not gone.
When asked about what professional achievements he's most proud of, Geramita gives all the accolades to his employees: "I would have to say I'm most proud of the team I've had the pleasure to train, Barbie Harkins and Julmarie White; they are a reflection of our business's success."
But this is par for the course with Geramita, whose many, many nominators remarked on his kindness, his welcoming heart, and his positivity.
This entrepreneur is also a volunteer, taking his sewing skills to the Erie City Mission since 2015 as part of the sewing, woodworking, and culinary arts programs.
From that came Urban University, a program ran by RoseMarie Croce, where Geramita helped kids learn about sustainable fashion, in addition to sewing and creating clothing.
When not volunteering or overseeing the work at Primo, he spends time with his wife Olivia and their dog, Dill — doing "anything to get Dill's energy out."
Said Geramita, "The best thing I can do to make Erie better is to live my life the way I hope others do. By serving those around me well, and seeking to give more credit than I take." — CS
Turn on Erie News Now, and you're likely to see Jamison Hixenbaugh delivering the latest stories and happenings in Erie and the world at large.
The Erie native, who attended McDowell High School and graduated with a BA in Communications/Journalism from Edinboro University, has won three Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters awards and has even had a segment nominated for an Emmy.
"I care deeply about this community," Hixenbaugh said. "I'm dedicated to making this city a better place, by telling the stories of the people who live here."
Hixenbaugh also reports for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization whose mission is to shed light on stories of economic struggle and income inequality.
It was in conjunction with this organization that Hixenbaugh produced his important Emmy-nominated segment about SNAP benefits being put to the test; for an entire week, he ate only meals purchased with the equivalent of a single SNAP recipient's allotment for a week — just $31.25.
Before coming to Erie News Now, Hixenbaugh worked as a news producer in Louisville, Ky., covering the killing of Breonna Taylor and the public outcry over her death.
"Even though you see the best and worst in people, I believe journalism is more important now than ever before," Hixenbaugh stated. "I consider it an honor and a privilege to be able to do what I love in my hometown."
Hixenbaugh describes himself as a "huge" metalhead, saying the older he gets, the more he enjoys it; he plays guitar himself, and plays ice hockey and fishes.
But he's obsessed with his dog Lucy, "an adorable Lhasa Apso," who, according to Hixenbaugh, has "terrible breath." — CS
Jesse James is extremely passionate about filmmaking. So much so that he moved to Los Angeles for a few years to learn what he could while working as an actor, then brought that knowledge back home to help build the film community in Erie, where he intends to stay.
An Erie native, James graduated from Mercyhurst Preparatory School. He received the Emerging Artist Fellowship Award for Filmmaking from Erie Arts and Culture in 2017 and was named Best Filmmaker in the Erie Reader's 2021 Best of Erie Awards. James formerly worked as a production coordinator at the Greater Erie Film Office where he assisted regional or outside productions with their projects in Erie. He continues to assist the film office as a volunteer. He's also a stagehand at Erie Events IATSE Local 113, where he works on traveling musicals, concerts, and live shows, assembling sets and setting up lighting and audio equipment.
James writes and directs, mostly his own projects. His most recent short film, Blinded, was selected by nine film festivals, garnering various awards and finalist statuses along the way. He's also recently worked on a game show and done the lighting for a Lebron James interview for Nike. He works as a freelancer doing camera, lighting, and editing work but also does everything in between. "When hired out I will jump on the crew of another producer and fulfill the duties of whatever position I am in. I have only been freelancing since November but have amassed a circle of clients that I produce regular content for. And when I get a break from all of this stuff, I write my own stories; and if I'm lucky, I get to shoot them," James said.
Outside of film, James enjoys rollerblading at Presque Isle and acting. He has performed at Shakespeare in the Park, Dramashop, and PACA. He also loves to swim and help other filmmakers in town work on their projects. James wants to continue to explore his passions and encourage those in Erie to do the same. "I anticipate setting many of the movies that I will produce right here in Erie," said James.
"If you work at a nonprofit organization in Erie, you know and love Ellen Kehl," wrote one of the Erie native's nominators. A Collegiate Academy grad who went on to study social work at the University of Pittsburgh and later earn an MPA at Gannon University, she "has spent her life and her career working to make Erie a better place and is involved in tons of community organizations. On top of that, she's an amazing person: a hilarious woman with a heart of gold."
Another nominator said you might think she's "three highly intelligent people stacked on top of each other in a trench coat" because of her ability to "rise to the occasion, coming up with solutions to problems." Ellen is in fact just one person, but that nominator offered the example of how during the pandemic, Ellen organized workshops at the Nonprofit Partnership to educate leaders on the Paycheck Protection Program and other programs that helped bring much-needed resources to various organizations in need.
In 2021, Ellen says her priorities shifted when she became a mom to Willa. "It may seem small, but I am proud of myself for momming and working full-time. Humbly, I think I am doing a great job at both," she says with a smile. "My daughter is part of the next generation," she says. "Bolstering the success of Erie's future just became more critical!"
In addition to momming and helping nonprofits, she serves on the Board of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) NW PA Chapter, and on the Board of the Wattsburg School District Foundation to further help the community by taking her connection-making talents out of the office. — BS
He's led rebellions against corrupt monarchies and taken down pirate ships with magic-based weaponry, but slaying cancer might be Dr. Jeremiah Keyes' most ambitious campaign to date.
Armed with the most cutting-edge technologies of Penn State Behrend's new biomedical research lab, the longtime Dungeons & Dragons player and intrepid researcher repeatedly journeys deep into the human cell, striving to understand the mechanisms and minutiae of biochemical communication (especially those relating to an enzyme called ERK, or extracellular signal-regulated kinase, which plays a key role in numerous cell behaviors). How and why do signals get corrupted, leading to the formation of 90 percent of human cancers, and how can we prevent this?
It's just like a former Antelope to be taking such strides in his field (especially amongst Behrend's Lions). The one-time mascot of Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, Calif. loped cross-country with his four children two years ago to lend his insights to the McGee-Womens Research Institute of Erie, a $26 million women's health initiative supported by UPMC Hamot and Penn State Behrend. A pending three-year National Institutes of Health grant would represent a proverbial leveling up of those efforts.
In the meantime, Keyes is focused on significantly adding to his party, creating inclusive and equitable opportunities for the research scientist character class in the Erie area. "I want to see the local universities using our resources and regularly going to local elementary, middle, and high schools to increase our youths' excitement and abilities in STEM. Secondly, I would like to see and help establish the biotech sector in the area to create more jobs for skilled and talented scientists in the region to be able to stay in the region."
That would indeed be a favorable roll of the dice for the future of medical research in Erie. — MS
Januka Khadka arrived in Erie in 2011 with six family members, all of whom were refugees from Nepal. As a teenager who spoke little English at the time, it was a difficult, but not uncommon, experience for New American kids making Erie their new home. But just three years later she graduated from the Charter School of Excellence and ultimately went on to earn a master's degree in social work from Edinboro University.
She was raised without technology and didn't have the opportunity to use a computer until she was 14 years old. She got her first cell phone when she was a sophomore in college. Now, as the first person in her family to attend and graduate college, she hopes that others will see her as a role model for people in her family, as well as those she works with on a daily basis.
Today, she's back at the Charter School of Excellence as the school's mental health therapist, providing social and emotional support and connecting students and families with outside mental health resources.
"I want to educate people about the importance of mental health," she says, "just like our physical health. We need to speak up about it, move forward, and seek help, reducing the mental health stigma in our community, especially in immigrant families. It is extremely important so no more lives are lost." — JW
KaleidAScope (KAS) is a local private non-profit with a mission to provide knowledge, advocacy, and support for individuals on the autism spectrum. Central to this mission has been Sara Rish Kitchen, a North East native and Mercyhurst Preparatory School graduate, who oversees the implementation of waiver services for adults with autism and intellectual disabilities.
She is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), Certified Employment Support Professional (CESP), and Licensed Behavior Specialist which she applies by doing direct work as a Behavior Specialist and Employment Specialist as well as collaborating with other organizations and programs. She also does marketing, outreach, and fundraising for KAS. Perhaps most importantly though — she is an advocate.
"I am dedicated to continuing to partner with employers in the local area to expand the reach of our employment support for adults with autism and other disabilities," Kitchen explains. "I'm always ready and willing to have a conversation about the potential benefits of hiring someone with disabilities — and I would love to see Erie employers really open up their doors to these individuals."
She believes that the more inclusive a community is, the greater the benefit to the community. "This is one of those things where it really does take a village," she says. "I'm optimistic that our 'village'" can be a great place for people with disabilities to engage in competitive integrated employment — out in the community, alongside their peers!"
Kitchen also facilitates a weekly virtual and in-person social group for adults with autism. During the pandemic, the group actually grew as the virtual opportunities allowed people to participate beyond Erie, including participants from Harrisburg and New Jersey. This led to another opportunity: giving a presentation titled "Being Social While Social Distancing" for the 2020 annual Pennsylvania Autism Training Conference.
"Not for nothing," she adds, "maintaining my full time work as a single parent is probably the biggest achievement. It's no small feat to balance working and 'momming' all the time — and I think I've done okay so far!" — JB
Edinboro native Lydia Laythe is an activist and a social conscience for and of her generation. By day, she's a social worker for the U.S. Committee for Refugees & Immigrants, where she oversees program supervision and case management. By night, she's a Washington Township Councilperson (elected in 2019), a member of Erie County United, co-organizer of French Creek Indivisible, and a coalition member of Erie's Domestic Violence Action Alliance and Erie's Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition. She shares her voice as the co-host of the Best of Erie Award-winning podcast Our Erie.
Most recently, Our Erie has spent a lot of time talking about local politics in the city of Erie, but the program ranges from national political topics, existential topics related to death and dying, localism — including restaurants, artists, and organizations — and all points in between.
After graduating from Mercyhurst Preparatory School and moving to Portland, Ore. to earn a bachelor's degree in social work from the University of Portland, she returned to Erie County where she and her husband now reside and have built "an epic treehouse" for her stepson. It's the bringing to fruition of simple, yet meaningful life goals.
As a high school student she was interviewed by the Erie Times News about what she wanted to see for her future. While peers talked about writing a book or owning a business, Laythe said she "wanted to do something I loved and be surrounded by people I love and who love me. I stand by that," she says, "but with one addition — I want to help people." — JW
Carly Lipinski's path was not always an easy one. A series of setbacks throughout her young adult life left her facing challenges that, for many, would be insurmountable. Today, the Fairview native has earned a BS in Psychology from Edinboro University as she's navigated those obstacles previously faced and prides herself on her professional accomplishments and her contributions to her community.
Lipinski is the general manager of Panache Salon and Spa, where she worked her way from the front desk to the back office. In her role, she created an in-house program with SafeNet to train staff to recognize the signs of domestic abuse and prepare the Panache team to provide clients with assistance when they need it. Because of her efforts, Panache is considered a "Safe Place," and has been able to guide a few women to get the help they needed because of the SafeNet program.
On behalf of the salon she also organizes annual food drives for the Emmaus Soup Kitchen and the Kid's Kitchen.
"I have always wanted to help people in whatever way I can and would love to be able to help others find their happiness," she says. "My dream would be to help people see their worth and gain more confidence, especially in the workplace. A few years ago, I found my purpose in life, and if I can help just one person find theirs, I'll feel like I've done my job!" — JW
Sometimes life guides us back to where we started. For Nicole Massari, it was out of a successful but less fulfilling life in the corporate world and back to a trade she studied in high school at McDowell — cosmetology. After working in several shops and completing her apprenticeship, she opened her own — the retro, eco-friendly Studio 71 — in 2021 where she still puts the business and marketing skills she picked up along her journey to good use. What's more, she's passionate about teaching those skills to other stylists so that they can open their own shops if they want, and uses her salon chair to help make connections between her customers, saying: "We cannot grow or help our neighbors if we don't even know who they are!"
This member of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists says she loves Erie, and thinks "it's really starting to lean into" its own assets. Where she's looking to help Erie beyond being a connector: "Sustainability is something we can definitely improve on as well as having a stronger sense of community."
She says she plans to teach other business owners how to be more sustainable not just by recycling but by reusing and upcycling — which she has personal experience with, restoring and upcycling vintage furniture she collects.
When she's not in the salon talking shop or sustainability, you can find this Stonybrook, Long Island-born optimist working with the landscaping company she co-owns, renovating her 1933 Craftsman-style home, gardening, spending time outdoors, traveling, writing, and being with her family. And if you catch her back on Long Island, you might notice something different than when you run into her in Erie: "When I visit family, my accent still comes back!" she says. — BS
As described by those who know her, Toni M. Mazanowski believes in community — and while she may be humble about her accomplishments, her involvement demonstrates her principles. She is a member of the City of Erie's Planning Commission and the American Rescue Plan Financial Advisory Council. She is on the board of directors for Harborcreek Youth Services. She is part of the 2019 cohort for the Jefferson Education Society Civic Leadership Academy. Having lived and traveled elsewhere, she loves Erie.
"The beauty of Erie is that it has a big city charm without the problems and enough history to rival some of the most famous places," she says.
She volunteers with the Hagen History Center, which she describes as one of her favorite things to do, as history is a particular passion of hers. She is an advocate for the community college as well, for training and educating citizens and keeping Erie's economy steady.
"I want to see Erie increase in sustainability. We have unbelievable resources and so much potential," explains Mazanowski. "There is so much history, beautiful natural amenities, and potential to grow. We need to come together to build a stronger community, and support our own, making this a place people are proud to call home."
On top of all of that is her day job as an educator. She proudly teaches high school students computer networking fundamentals in addition to career preparation skills. She's also a mother of four (and pet mom of five) and they love to do outside activities, travel, explore allegedly haunted places, and do just about anything and everything together.
She describes herself as very shy and introverted and anxiety makes it difficult for her to step outside of her comfort zone sometimes. "However," she adds, "if it has to do with history or working with our youth, I'm absolutely in 100 percent." — JB
As the first female artistic director in Dramashop history (and second overall), McJunkin is pushing to foster an even more diverse, inclusive, and representative theater community. A pivotal player in Erie theater, McJunkin succeeds founding artistic director Zach Flock, who had been serving in that role since 2011.
Originally from Port Allegany, Pa., and a graduate of Port Allegany High School, McJunkin also assists with Schuster Theatre operations, social media management, and administrative support at Gannon University. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and a minor in theater from Baldwin Wallace University.
McJunkin broke into the Erie theater community in 2018 and has been a member of the Dramashop Creative Team and a performer at the Erie Playhouse. "The role of Medium Alison in Fun Home at Dramashop really altered the trajectory of my life and is to this day my favorite theatrical experience. Performing in My Way: A Tribute to the Music of Frank Sinatra at the Erie Playhouse was a really wonderful experience, followed by the chance to direct Eurydice at Dramashop, which turned out to be a gorgeous production that I am deeply proud of. I can't wait to step into the role of artistic director at Dramashop and continue producing great theater in Erie," said McJunkin.
McJunkin spends her free time with her spouse and Australian Shepherd/Border Collie mix, Sufja, named for musician Sufjan Stevens. She enjoys visual art - painting and drawing, and has also dabbled in ceramics. — AVS
A designer, professor, marketer, actor, dancer, and a champion of monarch butterflies and Corgis alike, Jade Mitchell does a little bit of everything.
Hailing from Hopewell, Pa., she's a Gannon University graduate and has also received Post Baccalaureate Certification from Mercyhurst University.
Responsible for the brand identity, design, and marketing strategy for Erie Arts & Culture, Mitchell has helped to bolster the organization's impact throughout the region by widening their audience. Their grant applications have increased in her time there as well as event attendance numbers, and their email marketing subscribers have increased by 250 percent. "I help connect regional artists and organizations to the funding and training resources they need," she described.
In 2021, Mitchell began teaching graphic design at Mercyhurst University as well. There she leads an introductory course focusing on Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. Open not just to design majors, she's had the pleasure to see a handful of students switch their majors after taking her class.
And let's not forget about Corgi Fest, which she founded and oversees. Now in its fifth year, the event draws in over 300 of the short-legged Pembroke Welsh pups and around 1,000 human visitors. Mark your calendars for Aug. 20 at the Lake Erie Arboretum at Frontier for Corgi races, costume contests, and much more, with a portion of the proceeds going to Corgi Rescue Groups and Corgi Veterinary Care groups.
If that wasn't enough, Mitchell can also be seen on the local theater stage. Having been cast in a handful of roles with All An Act Theatre and Dramashop (where she also serves on its board), she is becoming a key part of Erie's acting community.
One goal that drives her is to "make the arts and humanities accessible and enjoyed by all," explaining that "I want creative expression to be viewed as essential to human development as love, family, community, and other basic needs." — NW
A photographer, sculptor, teacher, doula, and community organizer, Sarah MK Moody is being true to her love of the arts. "I am so passionate about bringing people together through creative expression. I truly believe it will make the world — and Erie — a better place," she reasoned, adding that "I love assisting others in shining their brightest, sharing their passions with the community."
Born in Chicago, she lived in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York City before settling in Erie in 2017. She received two bachelor degrees from The New School, at the Parsons School of Design and the Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts. In addition, she is a 500-hour Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT).
Moody has had internships with the likes of Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, Oprah and Cosmopolitan magazines, and worked with Miami's III Points Music festival. She also helped co-design Florida's coworking space MADE at The Citadel.
Having a passion for photography from a young age, Moody began classes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at age six. She specializes in portrait photography, including birth and maternity shoots. Moody also paints, works with clay sculpture, and makes intention bracelets and custom crystal jewelry with crystals.
In 2014, she founded the Maggie Knox art space in the Little Haiti neighborhood in Miami. This later followed her to Erie, and its spirit is alive at work now on Holland Street.
Along with her partner, Rick Bowser, she has helped grow the 10/20 Collective into a burgeoning creative space and gallery, creating a new beacon in the local art community.
"I want people to come together in joy, harmony, and creativity. To learn from one another and share our gifts with each other and thus the world." — NW
Described as the glue keeping Erie's comedy scene together, Anthony Morelli has been keeping busy since founding Off Constantly Comedy in 2019. With his production company, he coordinates, books, produces, markets, and performs in events at RandyBillDuck at PACA, Voodoo Brewery, Kings Rook Club, Black Monk Brewery, Erie Distillery, and other local venues.
The Fort LeBoeuf and Edinboro University graduate was undeterred even when the pandemic shut the world down, innovating to keep the local comedy scene not only alive, but thriving. He's worked hard to provide a welcoming space for those interested in comedy and hopes to eventually open a brick-and-mortar comedy club and establish an Erie Comedy Festival. Recently, he and others have established a local improv group called the Bayfront Brigade.
Morelli also hosts BuzzWorthy trivia locally, provides kayak tours with Presque Isle Canoe and Boat Livery, and attends as many local music and comedy shows as possible. He also spends a lot of time with his one-year-old daughter, whom he is excited to introduce to all of his favorite spots (such as Wintergreen Gorge) as she grows. And while having played in the World Dodgeball Championship in Las Vegas might be enough for some, Morelli additionally wants to add community gardening to his list of accomplishments. "I want to grow my own personal garden big enough where I can make weekly donations with a plethora of produce to local food banks," he says. He's also enthusiastic about spreading the word of all the good that Erie has to offer.
"If we work as a community and love and support one another, instead of a me-first attitude," Morelli concludes, "I believe Erie would explode with culture and love unseen before." -JB
As a Talent Acquisition Partner at Erie Insurance, Morris is networking, cultivating talent, and serving the community above and beyond. Originally from Toronto, Morris graduated from Downsview Secondary School and studied Psychology at York University. She received her Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace Certificate from the University of South Florida, and a Business Leadership Certificate from Cornell University.
Morris has been very influential in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion both in and outside of Erie Insurance. She serves on multiple internal affinity networks, employee resource groups, and has assisted within the community to make a difference in multiple inner city programs — as a Fellow with NAAWLI (National African American Women's Leadership Institute), the local chapter of the NAACP, March of Dimes, and Erie's Pride Alliance among many others.
Morris is most proud of the most recent project that she is launching with a business partner called The Corporate Class which will equip young women of color for corporate and professional job settings. Bringing people and organizations together for a common cause, diversity is her passion and pleasure. "I want to continue to serve the City of Erie with my talents and gifts in the most impactful ways. Whether that's at Erie Insurance, on (the podcast) Chatting with Sonya, through job ready diverse candidates that have come through The Corporate Class, or any of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) projects that I have the opportunity to serve the young people within our underserved communities. I am committed to continuing to advocate and use my gifts to both create and hold space for others," said Morris.
Morris enjoys reading, audio books, travel, and spending time with her husband Mike and two daughters, Ellori and Mackenzeigh. She has traveled to 23 states, lived in three countries on two continents including China, and has worked for two of the largest companies in Canada. She says she plans to stay in Erie. "Erie is such a unique place. It's a beautiful place to build community and raise a family," Morris said. — AVS
If you recognize Chris Norris, it may be from Discovery Channel's Erie-based reality show Undercover Billionaire. Yet, the show barely scratches the surface of what Norris has accomplished since moving to Erie. The Sharon, Pa. native and Westminster College graduate arrived in the city in 2009 when he accepted the position as director of entertainment for the Erie SeaWolves.
He then spent almost seven years in the marketing department at Mercyhurst University, building their social media presence, and then he dabbled in a corporate job before he took a leap of faith and started his own social media marketing agency in 2019. That became Revox Social, which focuses on social media management, consulting, and video production.
"Revox is Latin for 'another voice' and we believe that in a noisy online world, the voice of many businesses and organizations deserve to be heard," explains Norris. "Our clients include some of the best and are doing great work in Erie. We're honored to be their digital voice."
"I believe that kindness is a super power," he says (and in fact, he teamed with Iron Empire to create t-shirts with that slogan, with the proceeds benefiting the Erie City Mission). "Through my professional connections and personal relationships, I want to help continue to shape a positive narrative of our city."
Norris is also a member and site pastor at McLane Church, assists others through the Paramount Pursuits: Thrive in Erie business incubator program, and is extremely involved in the community. Since arriving, he's fallen in love with Erie, especially its summers: Presque Isle, Waldameer, and, as a baseball fan, the proximity to both the SeaWolves and his Cleveland Guardians.
"I've been married for 13 years to my high school sweetheart, Bethany, and we're expecting our second child in November," he reveals. "This is home now. We are raising a family here. I am growing a business here. We are living our best lives here and hope to leave Erie even better than when we found it. — JB
As one of the youngest people on this year's list, Liam O'Brien has a résumé beyond his years and the talent to back it up.
A managing partner with the video production company Oddity Productions, O'Brien has been at the helm of projects like Alexander the Brain and Portrait of a Universe.
They've also shot music videos for LambLion and Kingdom Lei, with commercial clients like the Hamot Health Foundation, Tipsy Bean, Erie Apparel, Altered State Distillery, and the Erie Playhouse. With his partners Danny Pakulski and Simon Yahn, O'Brien helped found the company at the age of 18.
In his own words, "our mission at Oddity is to improve the community by growing the Erie film industry. We want to see Erie become a premiere destination for filmmakers and, through increased industry activity, positively impact the economy and community."
After being a key fixture in the Radius CoWork offices (including some excellent whiteboard drawings), he was officially tapped to be one of their community organizers.
All this, and he is still in school. Working towards a double major in international business and finance at Penn State Behrend, O'Brien shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
With a skill set geared towards organization and production, he plays the role of a producer perfectly, working in the creative field bringing filmmakers' visions to reality on screen.
That isn't to say that he's not creative himself — far from it. A remarkable guitar player, he plays bass and ukulele as well. Half-Brazilian, he even speaks fluent Portuguese (with some Spanish skills as well).
Above all, O'Brien is a calming presence, bursting with humor and intellect. A valuable asset to any team, with all kinds of things ahead of him. — NW
Fearless leader. Mission-driven. Results-focused. Caring. Instiller of positive change.
Those are just some of the ways Chelsea Oliver's nominators described her. For examples, they cite her role as co-founder of the Corry Young Professionals Network; her service on the board of directors for the Corry Higher Education Council, Corry Area Arts Council, and the Northwest PA Trail Association; her impact in the Jefferson Educational Society's Civic Leadership Academy; and time as a former Chairwoman of Impact Corry.
And how she was an original steering committee member for the Corry Community Strategic Plan, and is a current committee member for Improve and Link Our Green Spaces, Strengthen Our City's Balance Sheet, and the Rail + Trail Park. Oh, and also was a former Corry City Councilwoman, and director of parks and public properties.
Of this Ellwood City native who moved to Corry in 2014 and "fell in love with my community," one of her nominators added: "She is not afraid to do the work that needs done. She is a true community champion, leader, volunteer, and friend."
More than her nominators recognize this; her community does. In 2019, this Seton Hill University alum who went on to earn a master's degree from Point Park University won the Volunteer of the Year Award from the Corry Area Chamber of Commerce.
"We can create a better future for all of us," says this power-lifting enthusiast, who's still in search of her snow sport but also enjoys hiking and walking local trails, doing yoga, and reading.
"Being able to accomplish that relies on folks having that same vision for the future and a mindset that it can happen, and anything is possible right here in Erie County." — BS
Ashley Pastore has a deep commitment to reuse and recycling. Whether that's creating fine art from dust, sewing together 10,000 lottery tickets, creating handmade paper out of discarded cereal boxes, or repurposing a century old building to house her business, Grounded Print Shop, she has made reuse her top priority.
This 34-year-old Erie native has lived in six different states, earned her Bachelors in Fine Arts from the Cleveland Institute of Art, as well as her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but feels it is important to stay in Erie now and hopes to bring a sense of creative permanence to her hometown.
At Grounded Print Shop (19th and Cherry) she has established a multipurpose, collaborative art locus: "At Grounded, we have two etching presses, two letterpresses and papermaking equipment along with space for personal studio rentals. Right now we have five artists renting studios. I am very excited about the artists who work here: all of them are showing their artwork in various places and producing interesting work. I think it's really important for artists to have other artists around while making."
Pastore offers a myriad of public art instruction classes at Grounded Print Shop: some are instructed by herself (papermaking and printmaking), while other instructional workshops from different disciplines include woodcarving and bookbinding.
In addition to making her own art, hosting regular workshops, maintaining a massive, historic building, and generally being an inspiration to all who encounter her, Pastore also enjoys chilling with her three cats, riding her bike, and caring for an ever-growing collection of houseplants. — EP
In March 2020, as the world was shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Eric Pollock was just getting started with Happy Bark, his nonprofit dog rescue.
"Happy Bark opened as everything else was closing due to COVID," Pollock said. "I will never forget how it felt to feel so good while the rest of the community was feeling so down. Starting Happy Bark and seeing so much success with it will forever be a proud milestone in my life."
And proud he should be; Happy Bark saved around 300 dogs in its first year of operation, and it has shown no signs of slowing since.
With over 3,500 likes on Facebook and multiple posts each day, Happy Bark is connecting fosters and adopters in the Erie area with dogs in need, namely from shelters in Kentucky.
In addition to running Happy Bark, Pollock — who started college as a music education major, before switching to information systems — serves as the chief architect at Erie Insurance.
"Helping people grow within various aspects of their roles and then enabling them to push to higher performance is such a cool thing to be a part of. I love getting to know people on a personal level and treating them like an extended part of my family," Pollock said.
If he had to sum up his feelings about working with both organizations?
"People are everything. In both organizations I know we are creating the next generation of leaders, and the potential of that cannot be understated." — CS
Erie native Samantha Randall is a driven entrepreneur and philanthropist. When she is not running the show at Bickel Law Firm, she's baking treats for dogs and their humans as the owner of Sundae Vegan Desserts or designing couture fashion for her other business, House of Charlie Ryan; named after her sidekick pup, Charlie, who also stars as the main character in her recently penned children's book.
Randall graduated from Central Tech and Mercyhurst University. As a vegan and animal advocate, she donates a percentage of her Sundae profits to "no kill" animal shelters and animal welfare organizations. She's an active volunteer with all of the animal shelters in the region and participates in the "Share A Meal," program at the Erie City Mission. Her goal is to offer more plant-based vegan desserts and one day, a gourmet restaurant. She is currently preparing for the much anticipated grand opening celebration of her vegan dessert and vegan ice cream trailer. Randall's treats are also available at Purrista Cat Cafe.
"Professionally as a baker, I'm beyond proud of the people that after having my vegan food made the switch to becoming vegan. Further, understanding the need to end speciesism," said Randall. Besides providing sweet treats to those with dietary restrictions, Randall wants to educate others "on how a vegan lifestyle can supremely make a difference in this world. To the animals, the planet, and you."
In her free time, Randall is a marathon runner and an award winning pole athlete. She enjoys spending time with her husband, her golden retriever, and their eight rescue cats. Randall loves Disney, Christmas movies, and has always wanted to be an astrophysicist and marine biologist. — AVS
John Roden has climbed to the highest peaks — figuratively and literally.
Through his work as the instrumental music teacher at James W. Parker Middle School in the General McLane School District, Roden was invited to guest conduct at the PMEA District II Jazz Festival— an honor usually extended to college professors or distinguished retirees. But, as one of his nominators stated: "His dynamic teaching style is unparalleled."
He's slated to guest conduct yet again in December for the 2022 Cambria County Honors Band.
There is also his stunning photography and artwork, which was most recently displayed in the latest Arts and Drafts event, as well as the Erie Art Museum's Nicole & Harry Martin Spring Show 2022. (You can find his photography on Instagram at @_eyes_wild_.)
And then there is his dedication to the great outdoors; an avid skier, runner, hiker, mountain biker, and kayaker, Roden recently ascended Mount Pleasant in Edinboro 200 times during the latest season and, as a member of the Adirondack Mountain Club, has hiked to the summits of 18 out of 46 high peaks in the Adirondacks.
Of course, he combines the latter two passions — "Always outdoors, usually taking photos!" the Indiana University and Messiah College grad said. He and his wife (and past 40 Under 40 honoree) Jenny are always traveling, exploring and adventuring.
"Through my teaching and musicianship, photography and art, or skiing and love for the outdoors, I hope to stoke those fires within others to make music and art and find their own healthy ways to get in touch with nature and themselves," Roden said. — CS
As an Erie native and a graduate of McDowell High School and Gannon University, Nate Ross understands the power of building upon the roots and relationships planted here so long ago. Today, as a Commercial Relationship Manager for Northwest Bank, he helps folks invest in the community where he was raised and now raises his own family – with his wife Kristyn and son Wesley. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit local business and industry, Ross helped implement Northwest Bank's Paycheck Protection Program, working with his team around the clock to manually input loan applications so that local entrepreneurs could be approved as quickly as possible.
That type of dedication extends to his civic life as well, where he serves as chairman of the board of the Americans for the Competitive Free Enterprise System, vice president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Erie County, and treasurer of Saint Paul's Lutheran Church.
When not engaged in or promoting entrepreneurship, he's a powerhouse bowler and duck-pin bowler, boasting two 300 games and the Westway Bowling duck-pin score record — a whopping 279.
"Erie is a big small town," he says. "The future of Erie has only just begun and it is a great place to raise a family. I want to help our local business community grow and prosper to enhance job growth and increase the overall standard of living. We need to not take Erie for granted, but take the beauties of Erie and enhance them, collectively." — JW
A musician with an overactive sense of humor isn't exactly what you picture from a typical IT guy, but then again, Rob Seaman isn't that typical. Graduating from Central Tech, he went on to the Erie Institute of Technology for network administration. Starting out as a PC technician, he's been working in the IT field professionally for over 15 years.
Now tasked with maintaining the network infrastructure for the City of Erie, Seaman oversees the servers and computers for the Erie Police Department and Fire Department.
While Seaman's day job is an extremely important part of what makes Erie run, there's plenty more reasons why he's worthy of note.
The frontman and guitarist for the indie-punk quartet Ladders (in which he shares the stage with Erie Reader managing editor and bassist Nick Warren), Seaman is the band's principal songwriter. He first picked up guitar in third grade, inspired by his father Bob, who plays bass in Abbey Road, Ruby Port, and Mambo, among others. A lefty player with a love of bands like Nirvana and the Menzingers, Seaman the younger has played with local acts Cult Classics, Last of a Dying Breed, and more before forming Ladders.
With that band, he's led the birth and growth of the Bunker at Lavery Brewing Co. as an encouraging new music venue. A sound technician as well, he's often busy freelancing on the weekends around the region, and has run the behind-the-scenes workings of events like Erie's Blues & Jazz Festival.
He's even a former soccer coach, working with the Special Olympics for three years. A welcoming presence in general, Seaman maintains a hilariously boisterous attitude even in the face of stress. He is committed to the music scene and Erie as a whole, noting that "Erie has been a city of artists for decades, and we haven't even seen the full potential of this city!" — NW
Nick Sorensen is a man of many talents. First, the Cathedral Prep and Gannon University graduate works as the Digital Content Manager for WJET-TV 24. In this role, he creates and manages online multimedia across various platforms. It's a role that utilizes a significant amount of both digital production and journalistic skills set in the fast-paced environment of a newsroom.
He has also created his own digital brand that's become well-known in Erie: Buddycast. Started during the early weeks of the pandemic with the assistance of his now-fiancée, Sorensen has since live-streamed over 200 interviews, all of which can be viewed on Facebook or listened to in podcast format. Interviewees have included dozens of local Erieites of all walks of life, as well as well-known guests such as Sinbad, Stephen Tobolowski, Bill Klein, Hunter "Patch" Adams, and Dr. Francois Clemmons.
In his interviews, Sorensen's own kindness and positivity radiates. "Every little action of kindness can make a huge difference," says Sorensen. "Set time to meet a stranger and hear their story."
It is no surprise then that he has used his platform to raise money for numerous charitable causes. He also ends each interview with a simple request: "Go be someone's buddy."
"Everyone needs a buddy, no matter who you are or how your day is going," he adds.
Additionally, Sorensen has been involved in the local standup comedy scene. He's also an advocate: he's a member of Little People of America and in 2019 worked with Representative Ryan Bizzarro to help pass HR 497, which officially designated October as Dwarfism Awareness Month in Pennsylvania. — JB
Having just wrapped up Pride Month, you've probably already seen or heard of Alex Sphon: as the President of the NWPA Pride Alliance, he has done a mountain of work spearheading local LGBTQIA+ events, outreach, public relations, and charity drives. He even carries his Pride activism through his day job as an accountant at National Fuel by serving as the Chair of National Fuel's LGBTQIA+ Employee Resource Group. Sphon also performs civic duties by serving as Secretary to the City of Erie Mayor's LGBTQIA+ Advisory Council as well as being a chairperson for the Erie County Human Relations Commission Advisory Board.
With his work in all of these organizations, helping the Erie queer community grow and flourish is one of his major goals. He does this through advancing legislation, like helping to ban conversion therapy, and also through charitable work: "One series of projects I'm really proud of are the 'Pride Gives Back' drives I have created by bringing together all the LGBT+ organizations to gather much needed items like clothing, coats, school supplies and food. In the last two years, I have led this group of organizations to donate over 500 lbs. of clothes, 250 lbs. of school supplies and 1,700 lbs. of food to organizations like Safe Journey and the Second Harvest Food banks of NWPA."
When he is not working to advance Erie's LGBTQIA+ community, Alex loves photography, in particular nature and animal photography, especially at zoos. Sphon has special childhood memories of visiting the Erie Zoo and has a goal to photograph animals at a zoo or animal park in all 50 states. — EP
The connection between the people and their government is a vital artery in a healthy democracy. Thanks to Frank Strumila, the people of Erie and City Hall are in good shape.
Working with the city's IT Department, Community Access Media, and with approval from the mayor, this Erie native oversaw major upgrades to City Hall as it was outfitted with new technology. That included new cameras and sound equipment in Council Chambers, which came to particularly important use during the COVID-19 pandemic to pivot City Hall entirely to keep government connected to its people, and vice versa.
Additionally, over three years, this Arizona State University grad has grown the city's social media presence by an estimated 16,100 percent since implementation. City Hall's total reach today is nearly 100,000 users per week.
Outside of City Hall, Frank, who served 13 years as an infantryman in the Army, is the owner of RandyBillDuck Studio, which bills itself as "the biggest little music and entertainment studio on the East Coast." You can also find him with his wife and dogs on Presque Isle, walking the Bayfront Promenade, or at Asbury Woods. He's also known to sit behind the drum kit for a variety of musical groups, and enjoys taking photos of landscapes during his travels.
What you might not know about Frank? He's been bitten by a tiger, punched by a kangaroo, rode an elephant as a method of transportation for an entire day, climbed Mt. Fuji, and camped on a glacier.
What he has to say about the future of Erie: "To make Erie a better place, it will take all of us working together. It is not so much what I think will make our great city better, but rather what each neighborhood thinks is best for them." — BS
When she arrived in North East, Pa. in 1998 to complete her senior year of high school as an exchange student, Lena Surzhko-Harned had no idea that Erie County would ultimately become the place where she would carve out a career as a political analyst or the place where she would start a family. Today, the Lunby, Ukraine native embraces both roles as she makes her mark in Erie and on the world.
Dr. Surzhko-Harned is the associate director of the Public Policy Fund and an associate teaching professor of political science at Penn State Behrend, where she teaches courses in comparative politics, including politics of developing areas — Europe, and countries of the former Soviet Union — international relations, and political ideologies. She is also the co-author of Post-Soviet Legacies and Conflicting Values in Europe: Generation Why, published in 2017. The book examines the intergenerational conflict and consequences in modern Ukraine and Russia.
Her analysis places her at the forefront of a global conversation about the future of Eastern Europe and the war in her native Ukraine. She's been featured on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's News Radio, Radio New Zealand, and published in Asia Times, U.S. News & World Report, and the Carrtegena (Columbia) Post.
"In some weird ways Erie reminds me of post-communist Europe," she says. "There is lots of potential, beautiful nature, many kind people, but at the same time there are sad remains of once booming industry. I also see lots of smart, driven people contributing to rebuilding and reclaiming physical and intellectual spaces. I hope to be one of those people." — JW
If you've attended any events in Downtown Erie recently, be it a farmer's market, a fitness class, or a concert, chances are Dave Tamulonis was involved. His position within the Erie Downtown Partnership has allowed him to use his community organization skills to bring a generous slate of diverse activities to Erie's downtown.
A recent transplant to Erie, Dave has earned his BS in Marketing Management as well as a BFA in Graphic and Interactive Design from Youngstown State. In addition to his day job, he is constantly busy with the many boards on which he serves, along with his volunteer and creative projects. He serves in the Erie Chapter of Groundwork USA Trust, the Erie Neighborhood Growth Partnership, Perry Square Alliance, and CAFE (Celebrate Erie). He is also a sound engineer with RandyBillDuck Studios, a teaching artist with Erie Arts and Culture, a volunteer with Our West Bayfront (where he is the co-organizer of the PorchFest Music Festival), and an organizer of the Rust Belt Experimental Music Exchange Concert Series.
In addition to this superhuman number of commitments, Dave is also a multi-talented musician, playing keyboard and/or violin in a number of local original music outfits including: Smilo and the Ghost, This American Song, Cosmic Debris, The Elle Taylor Band, as well as his own project, Shadow Plea. One of Dave's goals is to combine his love of music with his position in Erie's downtown scene: "My connection to the music scene, even before I moved to Erie, was a huge influence in how I approached this job. One of my biggest goals was to create a space for local, original music in downtown." — EP
A runner-up for Best Fine Artist in both the 2020 and 2021 Best of Erie Awards, Helen Tullio exhibits a remarkable ability to flourish with virtually any medium, in virtually any setting, with virtually any subject.
Adopting a love of painting from her late grandmother Barbara Collins and teacher/mentor Sister Mary Francis Becker, the Villa Maria Academy and Gannon University (business marketing) graduate cultivated her craft with oils and watercolors before more recent explorations in acrylics and epoxy resins. She has parlayed that passion into both a full-time business and a reputation as one of the Erie area's most sought-after young artists, with five solo exhibitions to her credit, and commissioned works for clientele regionally and all across the U.S.
Chalk that up to dedication — and also, incidentally, chalk. From the start of the turbulent 2020s, Tullio has been leveraging her artwork to uplift the community, filling public spaces with positive messages in the midst of trying circumstances such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the downtown riots the night of May 31, 2020. Local businesses and organizations took notice, and nowadays she is regularly recruited to beautify storefronts, sidewalks, and entryways while also coloring high-profile events such as CelebrateErie and Erie Gives.
"People were stopping to admire them and ask if they could help. It was then when I first really saw the impact and the positivity it created … we thought if it brightened even one person's day then it was worth it. It has sort of grown naturally since then and I love every bit of it."
That sense of peaceful joy and gratitude also permeates Tullio's professional work, as she pulls from the oft-overlooked allures of our built and natural surroundings — and the obvious and irresistible charms of clients' beloved pups. A dog owner herself (Miley), Tullio enjoys traveling, cooking, pickleball, golfing, and spending time with her family, friends, and boyfriend. She has fully embraced her place here and hopes others can do the same.
"I want to inspire others in Erie to take the leap to do what they love and help make Erie the beautiful place that it is. And of course, I want to continue to paint the town with my artwork!"
The polls say this is the kind of canvas(s)ing we can all get behind. — MS