Erie's 40 Under 40: Class of 2023
40 young entrepreneurs, creative thinkers, and leaders shaping the future of Erie
From a literary standpoint, numbers in writing are almost always significant. No writer worth their salt picks a number at random without it being a metaphor for something meaningful to the rest of the story.
And so it goes with 40. Throughout history, in religion, science, literature, and pop culture, 40 keeps coming back around. Rain fell for "40 days and 40 nights" during that one big flood (there are scads of biblical and religious references to the number), there were 40 thieves in Arabian Nights, there are 40 weeks of pregnancy, popular songs are ranked by their standings on a scale of 40, and a standard workweek is 40 hours (to name a few).
The number 40 for the Erie Reader is always significant as summer rolls around, when we take the time to sift through hundreds of nominations to make the tough decisions on who to include in the newest class of Erie's 40 Under 40. This year, we read the incredible biographies of over 300 nominees and somehow whittled that list down to 40. We've got farmers and entrepreneurs, professors and scientists, historians and activists, artists and musicians. Essentially, 40 people who have had a hand in helping to make Erie a more knowledgeable, fair, and beautiful place by being themselves and doing what they believe in.
So please join us in welcoming the 11th class of 40 Under 40 inductees. The honor is greatly deserved.
Written by: Jonathan Burdick (JB), Ally Kutz (AK), Erin Phillips (EP), Matt Swanseger (MS), Cara Suppa (CS), Amy VanScoter (AVS), and Nick Warren (NW)
All photographs by Jessica Hunter
Do you know someone you would like to see in the 2024 class? Our online nominations are now open! Just visit eriereader.com/40under40nomination
Those who enjoy local history are likely already familiar with Courtney Baran, a Seneca Valley High School graduate who studied at Clarion University before earning her master's degree in public history at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Since moving to Erie nearly seven years ago, Baran's mark on the regional history scene has been substantial. In 2022, while working for the Erie County Public Library as the digital collections librarian, she created and planned the very well-received histERIE Week. In her current role as the digital archives technician for the Hagen History Center, she scans archival material and prepares the images and metadata for the online collection catalog. She also runs a historical consulting business and has helped create historical displays, collected oral histories, completed archival research, and presented history lectures (such as her "A Taste of Beer History" event with Erie's Lavery Brewing Company). She also hosts a podcast titled Food Wine & Good Ol' Times where she discusses history ranging from chicken wings to the Erie Pontiacs baseball team. On top of all of this, she also is part of a committee assisting the city on its historical preservation plan.
"I would love to help Erie's community better understand its history," explains Baran. "Having an appreciation for local history helps build a sense of pride and togetherness that I think Erie needs."
Outside of work, she enjoys spending time with her husband of four years, their two young sons, and their dog Lobster. They especially love camping and hiking together. She is also a foodie and loves a great drink (she's even part of an online wine club).
As for Erie, she's fallen in love with the city. "I can't wait to watch my boys grow up here," she adds. "This city and area has so much to offer that you can't find most other places."
Fortunately for Erie, it has Baran to thank too for providing even more to offer in the city. - JB
Sometimes the best teachers are those who inspire by taking lessons out of the classroom and into the world. Beaty's classes have been described as four-month-long field trips. Using trail cameras and track plates, her students create population estimates for wildlife at Behrend and Wintergreen Gorge. Beaty was the first Pennsylvania researcher to create a team for SNAPS, the Student Network for Amphibian Pathogen Surveillance. Her students test Jefferson salamanders and other species for Bsal, a fungal pathogen that has decimated salamander populations in Europe. She also studies the mystery snail, an invasive species that has been found in Lake Erie.
Beaty is from Geneseo, New York. She obtained a bachelor's degree in wildlife science at SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry, a master's degree in biology from Texas Tech University, her Ph.D. in Zoology from Oklahoma State University, and completed postdoc work in wildlife conservation at Trent University (Peterborough, ON, CA). She was a Department of Defense National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellow during her Ph.D. studies, and the 2022 Recipient of Behrend's Council of Fellows Teaching Award.
She serves as an associate editor for the "Population, Community, and Ecosystem Dynamics" section of the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution and is involved in various scientific/professional organizations. Beaty has an impressive resume with 16 peer-reviewed publications. She is co-author on a book chapter, and has three other science-related publications. She has also collaborated with PA Sea Grant to start a series of beers at Erie Brewing Company highlighting aquatic invasive species and was instrumental in getting amphibian crossing signs established at Behrend.
"I want to get the people of Erie in touch with their wild side! Erie has so many unique, rich, and beautiful natural features that I want to share with my students and the community. Ultimately, I want to work with students and the community to recognize, respect, and protect our ecological wonders to craft a sustainable future for Erie," said Beaty.
Beaty considers herself a lucky person and says she enjoys hanging out with her fur, scale, and slime babies, fishing, hiking, generally being outside, and going to Erie SeaWolves games. –AVS
An entrepreneur and teaching artist through Erie Arts and Culture, Bonner can always be found celebrating and contributing to the local arts scene in Erie while also motivating other entrepreneurs to live their dreams.
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Bonner graduated from Euclid High School and went on to study art and business. Founder of the clothing line Artistic Souls, which he launched in 2021, Bonner enjoys expressing himself creatively and inspiring others through several different mediums. Recently, his contributions to Erie's murals through the Purposeful Placemaking project with Erie Arts and Culture have been taking center stage. His first mural as an artist assistant featured well-known and beloved dance teacher Carla Hughes, and is located outside of the former Wayne School, now the Erie Center for Arts and Technology. It was created with some of the center's students from whom Bonner says he learns a lot.
"I want to help Erie become a better place by welcoming young, thriving, hungry entrepreneurs and creators to Erie to really help their careers take off. I want Erie to be a melting pot of young artists and entrepreneurs, and for this to be a place of creativity, understanding, and success to help people launch their creative careers," Bonner said.
Bonner says he is proud to have been featured in 708 magazine, the Erie Reader, and Erie Times News and to have held art festivals in the City of Cleveland. His paintings and artwork have sold all over the world and he's had multiple art shows.
Outside of his work, Bonner says he likes to create and design. "I love to help individuals with their goals in life, and I love giving business advice and really helping people find their success," he said. He also enjoys skateboarding and music. "I love the creativity of music; seeing how music is made and put on records. I love watching and learning the whole process." – AVS
Jasse Camacho Vera wears a lot of hats. A LOT. He is the board secretary for the Erie Latino Leadership Association as well as the Pennsylvania Youth Congress. He serves on the Dramashop Board of Governors and in their marketing and development department. He is a resident artist with Erie Arts and Culture, a member of Mayor Joe Schember's inaugural Better Together Council, AND a member of the Community Liaison Roundtable with Senator Bob Casey.
You may have caught Jasse in his most recent role at Dramashop in their One Act Festival playing the show-stealing role of Al in Long Lost. His work in local theater is prolific, as he directs, produces, and performs in productions at Dramashop, Erie Playhouse, and Shakespeare Summer Nights.
But this activist's most important role is one of representation, "I'm a self-proclaimed triple threat, but not in the typical sense. I'm gay, disabled, and Puerto Rican. Growing up in a sea of white I was the only brown person … I hid my gayness in shame, and while my friends ran around the yard looking for Easter eggs, climbed the stairs to shoot down the slides at Water World, or even just dug their toes in the sand at Presque Isle – there I was off to the side or down below. My memories were of other people making memories. No one could ever speak on my behalf because I was the only one like me. I had to speak for myself. As I matured, I vowed to change this — to become the advocate I never had. My hope is that my actions ignite a ripple effect that will make Erie a more livable, accessible, and accepting place for all."
But among all of his accomplishments, his largest source of pride comes from his family: "I love spoiling all my beautiful nephews and niece. According to them, I'm the coolest 'guncle' in the world. So far, that's the best award I've ever received." – EP
In taking a stand for local literacy, Kyle Churman has shown a lot of spine. "The signs of a thriving community are libraries, bookstores, and access to information."
If that's the case, his love of Erie is truly binding, as he is doing everything he can to publish a new chapter in its "literary and intellectual development." Of course, part of that is Werner Books, the used bookstore he and his wife Lauren (Shoemaker, a fellow 2023 40 Under 40) purchased from original owner Gayle Werner last year. Through consistent, enthusiastic community engagement and marketing, the couple has been able to expand on an already strong entry in Erie's small business canon, with a forthcoming expansion that will double its shelf space and add a coffee shop to its Liberty Plaza storefront.
But that is hardly the whole story. Kyle also helped establish nearby Grover Cleveland Elementary School's Little Free Library, hosts several local book clubs (the Hagen History Center's Canalside Readers, Books + Beers in collaboration with Erie Ale Works) and school book fairs, and surfaces regularly at pop-up bookstores around the community. Often curling up beside him during his own reading leisure time are his cats Duke Silver, Betty, and Sara or any of the foster felines he and his wife shelter on behalf of the Erie Humane Society until they find forever homes.
As for finding his forever home, the former college hockey coach says he's done skating around. "I plan to spend the rest of my life in Erie because I cannot imagine my home being away from the lake." We're glad the Latrobe native bookmarked us. — MS
You may be surprised to know that Stephanie Ciner hasn't owned a car since 2007, with her bicycle being her main form of transportation. This is just one of the many ways in which she represents sustainability and environmental consciousness within our community.
Originally from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Stephanie found herself in Erie as an AmeriCorps VISTA service member in 2016. Immediately involving herself in the community, she purchased a plot of land on the east side of Erie that would soon become known as Wild Field Urban Farm. In 2020, what began as a large backyard garden expanded onto two vacant lots next door to become the burgeoning urban farm it is today.
Stephanie's vision for the farm is to work in conjunction with nature, not against it. She uses sustainable agricultural practices like composting and cover cropping while never using herbicides or fungicides. The farm is also pollinator-friendly, with no pesticides used and flowers left unpicked for bees to both enjoy the garden and do their natural job.
Stephanie's farm doesn't end at her backyard, though – she shares seeds, produce, and recipes with the community, and shares the farmland with neighbors in need of gardening space. Produce and plants from the farm can be found at the Little Italy Farmers Market and the Edinboro Market.
Another place you can find Stephanie and her products are at the Parade Street Fresh Food Farmstand, an initiative she co-founded with another local farmer that offers a "pay what you can" system as a way to make fresh produce and other products more widely available to those who may not be able to otherwise afford them.
Stephanie is also an educator in Erie Public Schools, bringing food and gardening programs to the classroom to teach youth sustainable ways to garden and grow food, and about environmental issues and their impact on the community. "I want to be part of the collective work of growing new foodways in Erie," she said. "And I want to become a good friend and neighbor."
When not farming or educating, Stephanie enjoys reading, doing projects around the house, spending time with her very active dog, and practicing the daily ritual of drinking coffee and thinking her thoughts. – AK
In 1889, Oscar Wilde penned, "Life imitates art far more than art imitates life," and in the case of Casey Corritore, her life is art. Within her role at Erie Arts & Culture (EAC), Casey is responsible for fostering relationships with local artists and helping them reach their fullest potential, all while staying true to their creative vision. "My primary responsibility is to work closely with artists and arts organizations within EAC's six-county service region to identify their professional and creative needs and provide relevant connections to resources, whether financial or otherwise."
She does this through a variety of means, but among this Baldwin Wallace University graduate's proudest accomplishments has been increasing the availability of grants to artists, as well as updating EAC's Erie Arts Endowment grant making programs to align with national emerging trends and best practices. According to one of her nominators, "Thanks to Casey's approach, she empowered me to apply for a grant that I ended up receiving and now my business has the capacity to grow. She is a beacon in the arts community and has helped so many working artists by guiding them to the right resources."
Casey herself is an artist, playing improvisational cello with a number of local musicians as well as participating in conventional ensembles like the Mercyhurst Civic Orchestra, the Warren Philharmonic, and musical theater pit orchestras. She also makes a conscious effort to face her fears, most recently through rock climbing and paragliding to help assuage her phobia of heights.
Casey plans to make Erie her home for the foreseeable future and looks forward to aiding in making the future of Erie a bright and colorful one, "By observing and listening to the needs of Erie's creative community, my mission is to provide creatives with greater and more equitable access to resources, to grow their capacity and increase the strength of the creative sector." – EP
It comes as somewhat of a surprise that Dominican-born Dina Csir is afraid to swim — because she's proven plenty capable of keeping herself afloat. Buoyed by a passion for cooking instilled by her mamá and abuelita in her hometown of Hato Mayor del Rey (near the resort destination of Punta Cana), the young restaurateur has found her water wings in the Flagship City Food Hall.
Small but mighty, Dina's Authentic Dominican Kitchen has swiftly turned Downtown Erie on to the delights of Dominican cuisine since its 2021 debut — most notably its signature dish, La Bandera Dominicana ("The Dominican Flag"). If you're looking for an introduction to Dominican food, it doesn't get any more authentic than this — the trio of white rice, stewed beans, and braised meat (representing the colors of their flag) is central to both the island nation's diet and their day, when towns shut down and families gather at lunchtime.
Since moving to Erie in 2015 with her husband John and establishing her restaurant, it's fair to say the people of Erie have become like kin, with whom Dina is eager to share the warmth and tradition of her culture through la comida (the food), six days a week, nine hours a day. Whether it's her customers or her three kids at home, Dina is insistent on taking care of family. "I think we need to be kind and respectful. Show more love and try to help each other." — MS
What sets John DiMario apart from most being honored in this year's 40 Under 40 class is the fact that he chose Erie. Moving here five years ago and relocating his entire family from Ohio (shout-out to wife Rhea, and kiddos Rhys, Rosie, Liliana, and Charlie for coming along for the ride), John felt like the opportunity to make an impact was too good to pass up.
Acquiring the former wholesaler Glenwood Beer in 2018, John remarks, "We loved Erie from the start and it immediately felt like home. My goal was to make an immediate and sustained impact on the company and our community." After rebranding the business to become Allegheny Beverage, the company has since earned the coveted MolsonCoors President's Award, invested in a new 110,000-square-foot facility (which was designed and constructed exclusively by local companies), invested in an all new delivery fleet, added employees, and experienced significant sales growth.
"I moved here because I believe in Erie and its future," the Ohio University graduate remarked. "My intention from the onset was to grow Allegheny Beverage Company so it will always be a great place for people here to work. An organization is really all about the people – they're the most significant asset we have. Commitment to growth, ongoing upgrades, and investing in people can have an immense impact on our community."
John also makes a point to donate regularly to Presque Isle Partnership. Preserving and protecting our state park is personally very important to him: "This little strip of land that makes up Presque Isle is the reason this city became what it is and what continues to keep us thriving."
When he's not working on building his business or spending time with his family and two Great Pyrenees pups, he enjoys playing music on any of the six instruments at which he is skilled, following Cleveland sports, or reading about Civil War history. – EP
To succeed in business, it's necessary to be able to pivot and innovate, something at which Alexandria Ellis excels. As the owner, operator, buyer, stylist, and content curator of SHE Vintage, Ellis has become a contributor to the revitalization of Downtown Erie while also building her brand by participating in the Amazon Black Business Accelerator, and recently returned to her roots in the beauty industry.
Graduating from East High School in Erie, Ellis went on to obtain her Toni & Guy Hairdressing Academy cosmetology license, Parsons New School of Design certification in Fashion Industry Essentials and The Business of Fashion, and graduated from the Thrive in Erie cohort program. Ellis is a member of Erie's Black Wall Street, The Well Network (a networking group for Black women entrepreneurs), and the Coffee Club Divas networking group.
Ellis has successfully grown her business from pop-up shops and collaborations with community organizations such as Erie's Black Wall Street and the Erie Downtown Development Corporation. Her store, in the historic Bonnell Building is the only Black-owned shop among the Shops at 5th and State, helping to bring Downtown Erie into a new era of activity. "I love that I am able to operate my business and call the shots while simultaneously bringing home steady income within an industry that allows me to use my artistic skills. I'm also proud of being in the Amazon Black Business Accelerator so now SHE Vintage can have its own Amazon storefront and private label merchandise. That's a big deal to me," said Ellis. She plans to start transitioning SHE Vintage into a more business-to-business model, taking winters off to travel in order to keep her spirits high and inspiration flowing.
"I want the people of Erie to see that personal style and fashion is acceptable. Dress up, wear the heels, put on that loud print, wear the lipstick. Look your best even if you don't have anywhere to go! I want to change the narrative of being overdressed, because if you stay ready then you never have to get ready,"
A self-described movie nerd, Ellis enjoys plants and cooking in her spare time. She has two children, a 13-year-old daughter Lailah and 16-month-old son, Eliah. Outside of work she loves to spend her days shopping and exploring fun things to do with her kids or just spending time with her parents at their home. — AVS
An Erie native who moved back to the city from Oakland, California in 2020, Susannah Faulkner immediately got to work. The Collegiate Academy and Ithaca College grad, who also holds a Master of Public Administration from The London School of Economics and Political Science, took a position with the Sisters of St. Joseph Neighborhood Network as their director of development, overseeing all grantmaking and fundraising for the organization.
And just two years after that she was officially in the running for an open Erie City Council seat — and was selected from a candidate pool of 20, making her just one of two women currently on the council.
One of her nominators effused, "I have known Susannah for 15 years and can speak to how knowledgeable, dedicated, diplomatic, and passionate she is about public policy, community advocacy, politics, and economic development."
Child poverty is a huge issue that Faulkner seeks to tackle as a city councilwoman: "The state and national average child poverty rate is 17 percent, and Erie is at a staggering 44 percent. This is a crisis that requires our collective attention and action immediately."
Faulkner not only played a key role reforming a British social service program in 2015, she was part of a team that helped "to reform major inequities in [California's] child welfare system," when Gov. Gavin Newsome approved Assembly Bill 260 into law.
Outside of work, this Jefferson Civic Leadership Academy graduate is active in organizations like Erie County United and enjoys gardening, traveling, and naps. But she also lives a double life — as a professional ballet dancer! Faulkner takes her dancing skills to the Erie Dance Theater, where she not only instructs children in ballet, but aids the organization with grant writing to help secure their future. — CS
As millennials approach middle age, they are now showing up in political offices on the local, state and federal level. One such young person is Jasmine Flores, who is in her second year of a four-year term on Erie City Council, and is currently serving as vice president of said council.
In addition to being the only Latina elected official in Northwestern Pennsylvania, she is the first Latina ever elected to Erie City Council, as well as the youngest person ever elected. One nominator said, "She is representing the often underrepresented population of Erie: women of color."
In her own words, Flores wants "to make Erie equitable for all. I want our city to thrive year-round and have family-sustainable wages available to our community members…I want city children to graduate in record-high numbers. I want people to stop treating young people like criminals and then acting surprised when they become criminals of circumstance. I want to provide opportunities to my community so they can thrive and survive in our city."
Flores cites her election to city council as her proudest professional achievement thus far — "My community voted to put me in that seat," she said.
In addition to her service on council, Flores — who is the eldest sister of 13 siblings — works as a habilitation technician for Bayada Habilitation, where she takes clients with intellectual disabilities and autism out of their homes to experience meaningful social interactions. Outside of her professional life, Flores enjoys trying out new local food spots, reading, and sitting by the lake, listening to the water. She dreams one day of owning a dog — and a house in the City of Erie. — CS
"I want to create content that helps people better understand what Erie was, what it is, and what it can be," says Tom Fox-Davies, producer of WQLN/PBS's Chronicles, the immersive local history docu-series that was recently nominated for seven Emmy awards (the first ever in WQLN's 56 years).
His path to producing and sharing directing responsibilities on Chronicles was a bit unconventional. For starters, Fox-Davies is a native of Somerset, United Kingdom. During his childhood years at the Sherborne School for Boys, he began acting. He joined and toured with the UK's National Youth Music Theater. He learned numerous instruments and has worked as a professional singer-songwriter, playing at Dubai's first-ever music festival and even once singing alongside Antonio Banderas for Andrew Lloyd Webber's birthday.
Eventually, he moved to Los Angeles where he worked on films, winning the Dell Legacy of Good Film Competition for the short documentary Circular Cellular and winning several other film festival awards for his first feature film. He moved to Erie in 2017 after having visited here numerous times due to a film connection to the area. He soon joined the Erie Ambassador program, then in 2022 was hired by WQLN PBS to work with producing partner Mike Berlin on Chronicles, which has been commissioned for two more seasons through the summer of 2025.
"The Chronicles show is huge fun to make and also allows me to learn so much about the region, the accomplishments of those that used to live here, and potential in its future," says Fox-Davies. "My commitment to Erie isn't just through storytelling. I believe in Erie's future."
Those who know him also note how generous he is with his time, volunteering it to assist young filmmakers throughout the community as well as assisting the Northwestern Pennsylvania Film Office.
Outside of work, Fox-Davies enjoys spending time with his two children, four cats, and dog, as well as spending time improving his investment properties that he has been renovating around Erie's West Bayfront area. - JB
Shateria Franklin thrives when she is helping others — whether she's working with the City of Erie on grants to sustain our community, helping young women find confidence through fashion, or working with the nonprofit she founded to help young women find their purpose.
An East High School Graduate and Gannon University alumna, Franklin is the founder of Destiny of Our Daughters Inc., a nonprofit organization providing young women ages eight to 18 with the hope, wisdom, courage, and power to find their own unique destiny and purpose by teaching life skills and character building. "Destiny of our Daughters aims to help young women with the challenges of defining themselves and making a positive mark throughout their lives," said Franklin. "We promote education, health, strength, and women's empowerment."
Franklin is also a member of the Strengthening Community and Police Partnerships (SPCP), an organization within the Mayor's Administration of the City of Erie intended to help build relationships between the community and police. "It's important to be an example of what it means to love your neighbor. I want to help restore hope for our youth in Erie and be evidence that you can achieve anything in this world if you have the courage to believe you can and work tremendously hard no matter what," said Franklin.
Franklin says she is most proud to be a self-published and award-winning author (Love or Loyalty). She says her biggest accomplishment to date is following her dream of owning a boutique. Franklin notes she is the first African American business owner to have a storefront in the Liberty Plaza.
In her free time, Franklin can be found with her three children: David, Major, and Madisyn, as well as with her partner in life and business, Marcus. She enjoys time with family and friends, entertaining at her home, cooking, reading, and writing. — AVS
At age 16, Gabe Genua had six blood clots cleared from his lungs. Now, at just 21, he is opening up vital new channels between LGBTQIA+ youth and the larger Erie community as vice chair of Compton's Table Inc., a queer advocacy group founded by small business owner and mental health professional Tyler Titus (a 2017 40 Under 40 honoree). Gabe's job duties include event planning and execution, counsel and mentorship to queer youth, outreach, and connecting community members to resources. That's not counting his additional responsibilities as outreach coordinator and case manager at Central Outreach, a full-time college student at PennWest Edinboro (majoring in social work), a part-time retail worker, an occasional public speaker (most recently at Erie Pride 2023), and a corporate sensitivity trainer.
The young viola player from Altoona has already proven himself a prodigious orchestrator. He's co-authored two important research presentations on the challenges and exclusions the queer community faces in higher education, as well as helped facilitate the recent "As I Am" art exhibition at Penn State Behrend featuring young LGBTQIA+ artists. Gabe is passionate about the opportunities within art to allow for the creative exploration of identity — and the emotions and complexities that surround it. Really, though, he's adamant about exploring opportunities for everyone.
"I believe Erie is on track to be the wonderful place we all know it can be. We can reach our goal by supporting and funding politicians and projects that truly contribute to all communities. We need to be focused on the entire population of Erie, rather than select populations. We are strong because we are diverse." We just have to work out the clots. — MS
Anyone who has ever coordinated a big event like a wedding or fundraiser knows how much work it is: the planning, scheduling, details, layout, promotion, safety, etc. Erin Green, a Penn State and Xavier University graduate, knows this level of organization well, as she is responsible for planning a large-scale event every two weeks all summer long with LEAF's Open Markets. In her own words, "I love being able to support local businesses and promote entrepreneurship through the LEAF Open Markets. I would love to see these events continue to grow and highlight local products and services, while also encouraging residents to shop locally and support the local economy."
So not only is Erin handling the layouts for the markets, coordinating all the staff management, market logistics, and internal and external communication with vendors, clients, city officials and staff, she also oversees other LEAF programs like their tree-planting initiative which has, to date, planted 40,000 trees throughout Erie. Add to that all the grant writing, sponsorship securing, print and digital marketing, and relationship-building involved. She's also a bookkeeper for several local businesses, keeping financial, credit, and payroll records.
Oh, and did we mention, she also has two babies (ages three years and seven months, respectively) and is a registered Montessori teacher? Apparently sleep isn't on this Erie native's list of accomplishments.
Erin is dedicated to helping make Erie a better place and does so through both her work at LEAF and through raising her family. One upcoming project she's particularly excited about is LEAF's new Tiny Forest initiative: "This project will raise awareness about the importance of urban forests, biodiversity, and the benefits they can bring to our Erie community. By planting these urban tiny forests, we can create havens of nature within the city, improve air quality, mitigate urban heat island effects, and provide habitat for wildlife. These spaces also offer opportunities for residents to connect with nature and experience the benefits of green spaces in an urban setting." — EP
"Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth." Those are the words of 1 John 3:18, and Melinda Hall is living them. Through her work with the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul, Hall has worked tirelessly to give back to the community. In the words of one nominator, "she is constantly working for change, giving voice to the marginalized and tirelessly advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves."
In her time as dean, she has helped St. Paul to team up with St. Mark's Episcopal Church to form Erie Episcopal. Together, they help share and distribute food, shelter, and supplies to those in need. Hall co-leads the Formation Project, a one-year online program in conjunction with Harvard Divinity School, has recently completed the Jefferson Civic Leadership Academy, and serves on the board of Compton's Table. She also volunteers with Catholic Charities to help support their work with New Americans.
Having previously served as area school director in Brookville, Pennsylvania, she worked with the local food pantry and helped them relocate, as well as starting a backpack program (providing food, meals, and snacks for kids to take with them) at her schools. She described that "I want to be an advocate for the welfare of all Erie residents, to support the work of our many nonprofits in helping everyone thrive, whether that means advocacy for more mental health resources, more low-income housing, or difficult conversations about gun violence," and was quick to note that "I am proud of the work I do raising up the gifts of others around me, empowering people to do what they are called to do and building sustainable organizations." — NW
Honoring the past is something very important to Laura Howard, an accomplished architect and Penn State graduate, and native of Girard who has recently come back to Erie after 13 years in New York City working to restore some of our most important historic buildings. In addition to honoring Erie's architectural past, Laura feels deeply about preserving her own family heritage and does so by living on and caring for land in Girard that has been in her family for 180 years and seven generations.
These deep roots mean that Laura has always felt like Erie County has been her home. After rappelling down historic buildings in Manhattan (she is certified in SPRAT — the Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians) to aid in facade restoration and working to determine the source of water damage and course of restoration at Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater (which was the building that made her want to become an architect at age eight), she is now back in Erie and ready to work toward making sure our architectural heritage remains strong.
"We must find a balance between preservation and new architectural developments that create a dynamic and vibrant city that respects its past while embracing the future. By encouraging architectural designs that blend seamlessly with the existing historical fabric of Erie, we can create a harmonious balance between old and new, preserving the city's identity while embracing innovation," Laura reflects. "The hope is to create an Erie that future generations want to preserve." She is excited to get those future generations of Erieites interested in historic architecture by volunteering to run an architectural day camp at the Hagen History Center this summer.
In addition to her love of architecture (and traveling to check must-visit buildings off her bucket list), she also loves skiing and is a licensed private pilot. Heralding back to honoring her past, Laura connects her current interests with her family heritage: "During the pandemic, I accomplished another dream of becoming a pilot like my grandfather, and am currently working my way through flying everything in his logbook." — EP
In 2022, the Erie Maritime Museum was among 20 nominees for USA Today's list of Best History Museums. Needless to say, to operate a museum as unique and special as the Erie Maritime Museum, it takes a significant crew with a very specific set of skills and knowledge. One of those crewmembers is Charles Johnson, an educator employed at the museum by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Raised a few short hours away in Elmira, New York, Johnson studied history (with a focus on naval history) at SUNY Fredonia before moving on to earn his master's in public history at Southern New Hampshire University. Now at the museum, he is responsible for overseeing and managing museum education and visitor services operations. Clearly, communicating history to the public is not just a career, but a passion.
"Erie is historic," explains Johnson. "Reminding long-time residents, and newer transplants like myself, of the region's storied past should keep people focused on a brighter future."
Those who know him say he is innovative and well-organized, a natural leader who has raised the bar for the entire profession. He not only educates, but plans, develops, and implements all of the educational programming on top of recruiting, training, and scheduling over 100 local volunteers.
His experience is not limited to his studies either. He has also served in the U.S. Navy Reserve for 12 years. During his most recent deployment in 2022, he was recognized by Vice Admiral Brad Cooper as Navy Central Command's "Warrior of the Week."
Outside of work, he spends most of his time with his wife Alyssa and their two young children. He's an avid sports fan, particularly Boston-area sports teams and the Arsenal Football Club in England. He also owns a 1962 Ford Falcon that he enjoys driving in the summertime — which he plans to do in Erie for years to come. - JB
Maeve Kirby believes in the future of Erie, and that our future is intrinsically connected to the well-being of the children in our community. "I hope to make Erie a better place by providing support to the children and adolescents in the area. Children deserve to know that their voice is important and their feelings are valid," says the General McLane graduate, who then went on to earn her Bachelor of Science in Music Therapy and Psychology from Duquesne University as well as her Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Gannon University.
Maeve is working toward her goal of helping Erie's children succeed by combining her passions for therapeutic mental health with her passion for music. Through her position as a mental health professional for the Achievement Center of LECOM Health, she is able to offer school-based as well as traditional office-based therapies, in addition to music therapy groups.
A close friend of Maeve's commented on her journey, and her importance to the Erie community: "Her specialty is helping children work through grief, as she has volunteered and worked with the Caring Place. Her dad passed away when she was very young from cancer, and that has impacted her career journey for decades. Erie is better because of her, and the kids she serves are lucky to have someone who cares enough to know what they don't know." And Maeve is invested in staying in Erie for the long haul. She reflects, "Time away helped me to realize that Erie is where I want to be long term."
When Maeve isn't busy doing the hard work of helping children deal with difficult emotions, she enjoys leaving it all on the stage through her work with local theater groups at the Erie Playhouse and Dramashop. She also enjoys taking walks with her partner Michael and their dog Theo. — EP
When she first moved to Erie in 2006, Stephani Klassen wasn't so sure it was the right fit. Seventeen years later, she's showing others how to "give a crepe" about her now-beloved city. Said one nominator: "Stephani has become a pillar in the community and truly strives to make Erie a better place."
Spinning crepes came into Stephani's life by chance. After earning her Bachelor of Arts in Hospitality, she found herself testing out the crepe irons at the French bistro she managed at the time, falling in love with the craft. A few years and the creation of many recipes later, she found herself spinning crepes again at Virgil's Plate, spawning the first pop-up of Give a Crepe — La CrepErie in 2016, where they sold out before 3 p.m. In 2019, her brick and mortar location opened on Peach Street, where they're still located today.
Stephani's kids, Lexi and Eli, have been a huge part of the business from the beginning. They were the first to try many of the recipes during their creation, and have been consulted on major business decisions that have been critical to the restaurant's growth. From helping run the register and clearing tables at the first pop-up, their roles have grown over time. Eli now helps build things for the shop and works on Sundays alongside Stephani, while Lexi works behind the scenes helping with advertising and marketing ideas.
Stephani is also the vice president and artisan flea market organizer for the Erie Hill District Collaborative, which encompasses the area in which Give a Crepe is located.
Stephani's work embodies her main mantra: to "give a crepe" about Erie and the Erie community. "(Caring) about Erie is a choice, and it's a choice I make daily via La CrepErie — through caring about the local gardens, entrepreneurs, and communication with multiple groups on how they can (care more) as well."
When not spinning crepes, Stephani enjoys gardening, cooking with her kids, and spending time with her dogs. — AK
Hailing from right here in Erie, Erin Layden — who holds a Bachelor of Arts in Public Relations and Journalism from Waynesburg University — serves currently as the recently-hired director of development at the Erie Cancer Wellness Center, where she oversees annual fund development, fundraising, donor cultivation, and coordinating volunteers.
Taking this job meant leaving a 12-year beloved position as the director of development at the Erie City Mission, where, one nominator enthused, "She organized all the marketing and communications efforts for large campaigns such as Erie Gives Day, The Annual Turkey Drive, and Knock Out Homelessness." They continued, "She's an unsung hero in the nonprofit space here in Erie. The Erie City Mission is regularly a top recipient for Erie Gives Day, and Erin had a lot to do with this."
Layden said simply, "I love Erie and the people that call Erie home. I believe God has called me to serve my city and the people in it." Layden, who is a woman of faith — as well as an avid reader, a self-described "huge crime junkie," a gardener, a cook, a hiker and explorer (her favorite travel destination so far has been Malawi, Africa) — is also a self-professed stickler for grammar, and recently edited a published book. She has been married to her husband Gary for 11 years and they have a daughter, Annabelle, who is eight.
In addition to her professional endeavors, Layden also serves as vice president of Membership for the Northwestern PA Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and president-elect for the Northwestern PA Chapter for the Association of Fundraising Professionals. — CS
Little else makes more of an impact on one's day-to-day life than the neighborhood in which one lives. The vibe, the people, the sense of safety, and community can all affect the way we feel about our home. It is the goal of Marissa Litzenberg, project manager and overall neighborhood organizer extraordinaire with the local neighborhood group Our West Bayfront, to make sure that the West Bayfront, and Erie at large, is the kind of place that residents can feel proud of.
"I want to create a sense of neighborhood pride that is inclusive, welcoming, supportive, and makes room for all. I think neighborhoods are what make a city great, and I love Erie neighborhoods! We should always be pushing for what residents say they need to succeed in life in Erie," Marissa reflects. She helps the neighborhood of the West Bayfront succeed through organizing a full slate of community events, and through facilitating wide-reaching surveys that get residents' input on potential neighborhood improvements, events, park upgrades, etc. Most importantly, Marissa has learned how to truly listen to the neighbors around her and take what they say into consideration when planning community events and workshops, public art installations, litter-cleaning initiatives, and more.
Prior to being hired in her current position, Marissa, a Penn State Behrend Schreyer Honors College history and political science graduate, served in a volunteer capacity at Our West Bayfront through Americorps VISTA, and her colleagues took notice of her great potential and work ethic. Anna Frantz, director of Our West Bayfront commented, "Marissa is a great example of how young adults can make a difference. Marissa is responsible for facilitating events and outreach activities that are strengthening the West Bayfront community."
When Marissa isn't dedicating herself to improving Erie's neighborhoods, she enjoys playing her saxophone in the long-standing local rock band This American Song. She also loves getting cozy with a good book or an embroidery project, and has recently started learning about the art of photography. — EP
When your list of accomplishments includes starting out as a foreign exchange student college intern, working at a company in a small office of 30 employees, to then becoming COO and overseeing that same small office turn into a global company with over 1,000 employees, raking in half a billion dollars in revenue, AND climbing to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, it is safe to say that Yuriy Ostapyak is the stuff of 40 Under 40 legend.
Born in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, Yuriy came to Erie and attended Villa Maria Academy, followed by Edinboro University, before returning to Ukraine to complete his graduate studies in international economics at the Kyiv National Economic University. And he has put his degrees to good use in Erie as he has become the chief operating officer of Logistics Plus, an international company headquartered here in Erie (at Union Station) that specializes in freight transportation, warehousing, fulfillment, global logistics, business intelligence, technology, and supply chain management solutions. All this is to say, Yuriy is very good at moving things around the globe.
And he is excited to keep Erie as his home base, "We love Erie, love the Erie community. We are committed to investing in Union Station as the long-term global headquarters of Logistics Plus. We are committed to making this a great place to work and serving the community through creating opportunities for young talent to thrive. We have already invested millions of dollars into our opportunity zone, and will continue to invest in making this an area that is welcoming and prospering."
Yuriy's love for Erie is also paired with a love for his birthplace, Ukraine. When Russia attacked Ukraine, Logistics Plus rallied support locally and beyond to Ukrainians, raising over $660,000 in relief and providing other aid. When he's not busy fundraising or traveling the globe on behalf of his business, Yuriy enjoys hiking, taking walks, and playing golf. — EP
"Encouraging women to embrace the Queens within themselves," reads the mission statement of DivinelyCROWN'D L.L.C.
From the engaging mind and spirit of Davina Pacley comes a business that empowers self-love and confidence. Combining lifestyle tips, life coaching, words of faith, and even fashion advice, Pacley is building — and is herself — a valuable resource in the community. Growing up in Erie and graduating from Strong Vincent High School, she went on to study at PennWest Edinboro and the Erie Business Center.
She's an executive assistant at Steel Toe Consulting, a member of Erie's Black Wall Street, Radius CoWork, the SafeNet Garden Party Planning Committee, and heads a Bible group known as the Glow Girls Club. Put that all together, and she's well plugged-in to the world of business professionals and local entrepreneurs, all the while carving out a personal space and identity of her own.
As an extension of her main company, Pacley hosts the DivinelyCROWN'D Podcast. Launching in September of 2022, it has since gone on to win a Greenlight Award for Best Podcast. She's hosted events like the Sip and Slay Soiree and the Lovers & Friends Soiree and plans on many future events as well. Pacley enjoys occasionally fashion modeling, and loves spending time with her children RaMiyah and Rodney III.
Overall, she wants to "continue to create safe spaces and fun experiences for people in our community. I also want to continue to be a positive influence in the people's lives of our community as the life coach that I am." — NW
As a military kid, Katie Peppers has no real hometown. So far, Erie's been her longest place of residence since moving here in 2015, but in those years she's planted deep roots within the community.
Working as the special events and volunteer coordinator at the Mercy Center for Women, Katie's day-to-day involves directing help for both the office and the Threads Thrift Store, as well as planning activities for large groups and fundraising events. She also finds time to engage with those in the Mercy Center's Transitional Housing Facility, where her office is located. Often, she has women and children stopping in to ask questions, grab a snack, or enjoy a quick chat with her.
Katie is involved with many local organizations, including being a member of the Jefferson Civic Leadership Academy's 2023 cohort, but her work with Our Neighbors' Place (ONP) is a highlight of her commitment to the community. This past winter, she facilitated the organization's overflow shelter as the primary volunteer coordinator for a two-week period. This meant making sure staffing, volunteers, supplies, safety, and food were all taken care of for the shelter, in addition to her full-time position at the Mercy Center for Women.
This overflow took place during the huge winter storm of the past holiday season, which saw extreme low temperatures and put those without housing at great risk. Katie was not only able to open the doors early to 65 guests — almost double the capacity the shelter can usually take — but also kept it successfully running for two weeks, without having to turn away or ban a single guest.
This work is a testament to Katie's resilience and how she wants to make an impact: "My mission in life is to challenge those that are content to instead live in the uncomfortable," she said. "I don't want people to be passive observers in a world so full of beauty and injustice. I hope that my work inspires communities to come together, regardless of gender, age, race, or socioeconomic status."
When not working or volunteering, Katie enjoys spending time with her two cats, Figaro and Oliver, as well as enjoying a sunrise or sunset at Presque Isle. She also thrifts and crafts DIY home décor to make her home a beautiful and welcoming space. — AK
It's easy to be impressed by Ralph Reitinger. For years, he's been an essential part of Erie's music scene, proving himself time and time again to be one of the hardest-working and talented bassists (and overall musicians) in Erie.
If you catch live local music, you've no doubt seen him onstage sporting a whaler beard, baseball cap, and fluorescent DR Bass Strings atop his Buddy Guy-autographed Modulus five-string. He's a member of (deep breath) Eric Brewer & Friends (four-time Best of Erie Winner for Best Local Band), Phunkademic, the CEE Brown Experience, the Jeff Fetterman Blues Band, Jake's Blues, SANIS, the Ron Yarosz Power Organ Trio, as well as Blue Sky, Dark Sider, and the Erie Allstars. And don't be fooled, though some guitarists or frontmen might have their names on the marquee, it's Reitinger who serves as the backbone, providing the right groove every time.
Over the years, he's had the opportunity to open up for legendary acts like Van Morrison, the aforementioned Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, Gary Moore, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, WAR, and Zappa Plays Zappa. An Erie native and Strong Vincent High School alum and RockErie Hall of Famer, Reitinger is a proud father of three.
When he's not playing music, he can be seen with another kind of bass, while fishing. He's also an avid comic book collector, and for the past three years, has been documenting his frequent, and often lucrative comic hauls via YouTube.
At his core, he's also a funny, genuine, and warming presence in the often all-too-chaotic music scene. In his words: "I want to inspire the next generation of Erie musicians to spread positivity and continue to build up a better community through the power of music." — NW
While many took time during the pandemic to take up a new hobby or learn a new skill, Amanda Rumball took it one step further and launched her own business. In 2020, Amanda took a leap of faith and began her bridal beauty business, which has since garnered more than 150 five-star reviews and cemented her as a successful entrepreneur in the Erie community.
Amanda's success isn't just local — her work has been featured in television advertisements, on streaming services Netflix and Hulu (9/11: One Day in America, Unstuffed: A Build-A-Bear Story), and on nationally published book covers (Step into Your Spotlight: Inspiring Women to Play Bigger). She's become something of a nano-influencer, creating an online community around her styles.
Amanda's journey hasn't always had Erie in the cards — she left the city to pursue her Bachelor of Arts in French Language from the University of Kentucky before returning to the area as an adult. "My goal when I returned home to Erie was to give back to the community I grew up in and heal my love-hate relationship with the city," she said. "After I left, I realized it is a beautiful place to call home. I started my business to serve the community and honor my ancestors, who were also female entrepreneurs more than 100 years ago."
Amanda not only runs her successful business, but works to bring together other makeup artists and those in the beauty sector in Erie: "I'm working on connecting local beauty entrepreneurs in the city to encourage the idea of community over competition."
Amanda also volunteers her time at the Erie Cancer Wellness Center, providing those actively fighting cancer and recovering from it with the tools needed to feel beautiful again, in whatever way that means for each individual. With hair, eyebrow, and eyelash loss being a prevalent side effect of treatments, many women can feel they've lost a big part of who they are, and Amanda helps them focus on brow and lash enhancements that can make them feel like themselves again.
When not working, Amanda enjoys traveling, shopping, and trying new restaurants and foods. — AK
It's quite clear that owner Jessica Schultz, a Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy graduate, is an artist when it comes to baking. She has dual degrees in human nutrition and agricultural sciences from Virginia Tech University (in 2012, she was awarded Outstanding Senior). After graduating, she stayed in Virginia and opened up a bakery. She also completed a county-wide food system assessment focusing on finding ways to increase access to locally grown and produced foods among low-income residents. The findings led to the development of a shared-use commercial kitchen (which she helped open as the kitchen manager) for farmers, small businesses, and hunger relief agencies.
After 13 years away though, Schultz missed home. So, she moved back to Erie in April 2020 and, not long after, opened up Herb & Honey Bakery. She's deeply interested in nutrition, the connection between food and health, and community food systems, and considers all of this when sourcing ingredients. It's no surprise then that she frequents local farmers markets and is involved with the Sisters of St. Joseph Neighborhood Network Garden Task Force. A friend calls her the hardest-working person he's ever met and extremely charitable.
"I want to contribute to Erie's local food system in a way that makes it more accessible, equitable, sustainable, and delicious," explains Schultz. "I would love someday to open a shared-use commercial kitchen in Erie and see what others are dreaming, too."
Outside of work, she loves gardening, native and medicinal plant identification, reading science fiction and fantasy, and hiking and traveling with her dog Max. The duo have driven through 40 states together. She also enjoys singing (and wishes she had more time for it) as well as playing the ukulele (which she jokes is to make the singing in public less awkward). - JB
If there was just one word to describe Zakaria Sharif, it would be reciprocity. Refugees of the Somali Civil War (a conflict that still simmers to this day), his family arrived in Erie in 1996 with very little.
What they did have, however, was gratitude. They were grateful for the Housing Authority of the City of Erie that put a roof over their heads. They were grateful for Erie's Public Schools, which gave Zakaria an education and a springboard to pursue his dreams. Most of all, they were grateful to have a community in which they could grow and flourish.
The one-time beneficiary of public services is now a full-time public servant, constantly giving back to the town that molded him. As a public health educator for the Erie County Department of Health, he helped steer citizens through the uncertainty of the pandemic. As an Erie School Board appointee and co-supervisor of the Elevate Success after-school program, he has continued to advocate for inner city students, with an emphasis on improving safety, addressing mental health, and increasing attendance and graduation rates. As vice president of the Islamic Association of Erie, he has worked to combat food insecurity and feed 180 local families.
The East High and Penn State graduate also holds board memberships with the John F. Kennedy Center, Multicultural Health Evaluation System, New American Council, and the Foundation for Public Schools. If that seems like a lot, he is quick to remind us that "representation matters," pledging to be a "voice to those who don't have a platform to speak."
Although a "very open, public person," Zakaria says he cherishes his wife and five children the most. "My family is what keeps me going and grounded." And with him as an example, surely continuing to give back for years to come. — MS
To say that Lauren Shoemaker, Ph.D., wears many hats is a monumental understatement. As one friend notes, not only does she wear all of the hats, she does so very effectively and with creativity and fresh ideas.
After graduating from Northwestern Senior High School, Shoemaker completed her undergraduate studies at Slippery Rock University, then continued on to earn her Master of Arts in English Literature at Gannon University and her Ph.D. in Literature and Criticism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
She then returned to Slippery Rock University in 2016 as an assistant professor of English. She teaches courses including composition, gender studies, and literary theory, but she's also a passionate advocate on campus for inclusive, student-centered pedagogy and integrating DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) principles in the classroom. She advises the campus Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance and was named the Woman/Ally of Distinction this year by the President's Commission on Women. She is also a proud member of the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties, the faculty and coaches union at Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education schools.
Then there's Shoemaker's other job. As of 2022, she is co-owner of Erie's beloved Werner Books alongside husband (and fellow 2023 40 Under 40 honoree) Kyle Churman. Together with their team, they've continued the store's legacy of fostering a welcoming space while also building new community partnerships with WQLN PBS, LEAF, and Grover Cleveland Elementary School. Shoemaker also coordinates the Book + Beers monthly book club, assists Mabel Howard in the hosting of Poetry X-Change on the second Sunday of each month, and has worked with the team on doubling the store's size and opening a coffee shop.
"Erie is already a vibrant arts and culture community, so I want to strengthen our literary arts community," Shoemaker explains. "As we grow into the new space, our goal is to expand literacy partnerships and opportunities for Erieites of all ages."
Outside of work, she is, of course, an avid reader. She also enjoys walking at Presque Isle and spending time with her husband and cats Duke Silver, Betty, and Sara (as well as fostering cats for the Erie Humane Society when needed). "Kyle and I are completely invested in Erie's future," says Shoemaker. - JB
Smilo is inspiring countless members of the community through his personal recovery transformation which is shared through his music and stories performed with his band, Smilo and the Ghost.
Originally from Coshocton, Ohio, Smilo attended Coshocton High School and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. In 2016, Smilo and the Ghost was formed and have been delivering hard-driving, old-time influenced folk-rock to crowds throughout the Northeast. Their debut album, Ghost Writers, was voted one of the "Top Three Albums From Erie Artists in 2018" by the Erie Reader (two solo releases, 2014's Blood into Sound and 2015's Dust in a Grave also received the honor in their respective years). Since then, Smilo and the Ghost have opened for national acts like Grammy Award Winning country duo Dan + Shay and alt-rock legends 10,000 Maniacs (in addition to earning more local top three recognition for 2021's Fingers Crossed and Godspeed).
Smilo has brought addiction awareness to the public eye by showing that recovery is possible for people who may feel hopeless. "I want to continue to talk about addiction and recovery through music. Letting other people know it's okay to talk about their struggles and find solutions. People can and do change. Most people I've known who struggled with addiction have so much to offer the world and community once clean. We are a powerful bunch," said Smilo.
Tyler is currently working with the band on their third full-length studio album. "We are about to raise over $14k through crowdfunding," he said. "We are hoping it is out by the fall. I want to continue to grow my Songs & Stories: Tales of Addiction and Recovery to spread the good news and continue to help other addicts in recovery."
Smilo says he is proud to have written over ten full-length albums and well over 100 original songs. When not touring or working on music, you can find him cooking and hanging with his son. He also enjoys time in nature and collecting antiques. — AVS
Pull back the mask on Will Steadman and you'll discover the authority on All Things Spoopy (an adjective originating from a viral photo of a misspelled Halloween decoration, which has come to mean "silly-spooky") — and a fantastic mentor to more than a few mettlesome kids. Although he enjoys joining his sister in the podcast studio to discuss spoopiness, his favorite haunt by far is a good auditorium or theater. Unlike the phantoms of R.L. Stein and Andrew Lloyd Weber, he's not there to scare anyone off. Instead, he welcomes them with open arms — he does have a master's degree in choral conducting, after all.
Steadman has never shied away from the stage, performing as a tenor soloist with the Western New York Chamber Orchestra, Erie Opera Theater, Erie Chamber Orchestra, and Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as a player in various community theaters (serving on the board of directors for both the Erie Playhouse and Dramashop) and Erie Philharmonic Chorus (where he is acting vice chair of the steering committee) productions.
He is not afraid to cede the spotlight to others either, whether he's teaching vocal jazz or choir at General McLane, coaching private voice students, chauffeuring standouts to any of the Pennsylvania Music Educator Association's major student showcases (he is currently the PMEA District 2 professional development chair), or directing rock musicals (like the Lizzie Borden-themed Lizzie at Dramashop),
His most superlative understudies have advanced to some of the most prestigious programs in the country, such as the Interlochen Center for the Arts (Michigan), the Paper Mill Playhouse (in the vicinity of Manhattan, and by extension Broadway), and several top college musical theater and voice programs.
He's more than ready for Erie's next act. "I want to provide opportunities for students to grow as empathetic artists and help them find passion for music, theater, and the arts." Perfectly pitched. — MS
While you might see some people wearing her merch that says "Don't Ask Me About Elle Taylor," we definitely want you to ask us about this local musician.
Many may recognize her from her involvement in the local Erie music scene, but by day, Elle Taylor works as a case manager with children in the acute program at Sarah Reed Children's Center. That's not to say she hasn't brought her talent and love of music to the youth she helps, though: over the past six years, she has been teaching the kids in the program to play the ukulele.
Voted the Erie Reader's Best New Artist in 2022, Elle is very involved in local music and art. She runs Open Mic Night at Philly on the Rocks each Sunday, giving other local musicians a space to express themselves and perform original music. She's had shows at the 1020 Collective, played Celebrate Erie multiple years running, and sells her art annually at the Arts & Drafts show.
Elle isn't trying to compete with other local artists, though. "We all have the same dream and passion, and music should never be a competition," she said. "I just want to listen to and root for others because I would not be doing anything with music if it was not for people believing in me."
While music is a big passion for her, Elle is also a single mom whose two children come before anything else. Her family includes the four-legged variety, too: she has cats, one of which is 17 years old and is her best friend. In her free time outside of work and music, she can be found riding her bike, kayaking, hiking, camping, and oftentimes creating collage art to sell or writing songs on her porch.
One of the most important things she wants young people to realize is that it's never too late to chase your dreams. "It's okay to not know what you're doing," she said. "I didn't play guitar until I was 31 and didn't have a band until I was 35. I'm more proud of myself now than I ever thought possible. Life doesn't end at 30 or 40 or 50. It's a journey, not a destination." — AK
Though he hails from Yaounde, Cameroon, Yvan Vladimir Tchounga has called Erie home since he began his graduate work at Mercyhurst University, studying data science. That work led to his current position at WQLN, where he works as a video editor and data analyst, creating and editing promotional videos for the historical docuseries Chronicles, as well as analyzing and interpreting different social media numbers, "which helps us better understand our demographic and target audience," Tchounga explained.
Chronicles, which features stories about the people and places that make the Lake Erie region extraordinary, was nominated for six 2023 Central Great Lakes Emmys, a fact Tchounga — who had a hand in every single episode — is extremely proud of.
When not working, Tchounga dedicates much of his time to his podcast, International Student Experience, where he talks "with different students, academics, and professionals about their home country's cuisine, culture, and tourism. We also talk about their experience in the U.S.," he mentioned. As one of his nominators said, "Through this podcast, he serves as an ambassador to the city and helps this community feel more at home."
Additionally, Tchounga runs an online group with friends from Cameroon called Affaire Nkap, and, while living in West Africa, he ran a nonprofit called Helping Hands, which organized different campaigns to help aid the orphanages of Cameroon.
Tchounga plans to stay in Erie — "There's a lot going on here," he said — and he enjoys taking advantage of Presque Isle, playing soccer, and pickleball.
Erie is a city with strong immigrant communities, as well as outstanding individuals representing their home countries, like Tchounga. As he said, "Let's embrace our diversity and keep learning from each other." — CS
Just one glance at Brenna Thummler's work and you know it's something special. With three major graphic novels — published by Andrews McNeel and Oni Press — and two on the way this year, her talent seems only to be matched by her incredible work ethic. "If you're not working, then you should be working," she mentioned as one of her frequently repeated mottos.
And working she is.
Growing up and attending high school nearby in Meadville, she ventured south to Sarasota, Florida's Ringling College of Art and Design. From there she served as an illustration intern with Andrews McNeel, which unexpectedly led to her debut work, a graphic novel retelling of Anne of Green Gables. She went on to write and illustrate Sheets in 2018 and its sequel Delicates in 2021. The former was named a Barnes & Noble Best Book of 2018, and was nominated for a Reuben Award from the National Cartoonists Society (NCS), and the latter named a Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) Great Graphic Novel for Teens. This September will see the release of Lights, the final part of her original trilogy. Her self-described "post office western," Gumshoe is set for a 2026 release with HarperAlley, the graphic novel branch of HarperCollins.
On top of that already impressive resume, she's an actor, playwright, pianist, tapdancer, and podcaster. Recently appearing in productions of Mamma Mia and Cabaret with the Academy Theatre, she had her one-act play Single Book Store produced by Dramashop, and started the podcast/website Spotlight 814 with her co-host Ryan Dawley, focused on the area's community theater scene. Thummler is also seeking her master's degree at the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English, which will find her studying at Oxford University this summer. — NW
Dr. Rochelle Von Hof has a long history of helping those with developmental and intellectual disabilities — in fact, while working for the Chautauqua County Department of Mental Hygiene she wrote and won a $4 million grant, and she is the co-founder of the White Pine Center for Healing, a nonprofit that works with individuals who struggle with eating disorders.
But it is her work through L'Arche Erie, as community leader and executive director, that Von Hof has made her greatest impact on the area to date — and she's nowhere near done. "I want to continue to build programming for those who have mental/behavioral health and/or intellectual disabilities needs, because Erie is a place where everyone belongs," Von Hof — who holds three degrees, including a doctorate in psychology — said.
One of her nominators remarked, "Rochelle goes above and beyond her long list of responsibilities…first and foremost, she leads by example. She has built authentic relationships with many of the core members. For these individuals, who may feel like outcasts in society, she spends time supporting and building friendships with them."
In addition to her work with L'Arche, Von Hof is a passionate advocate for animals, as evidenced by her involvement with the Erie Kennel Club. And outside of work, Rochelle enjoys spending time with her husband and three French mastiffs, listening to podcasts, and educating herself "on how the brain works and how the body responds to traumatic events."
When asked if she plans on staying in Erie for the foreseeable future, Von Hof responded with a resounding "absolutely!" And Erie is all the better for it — as another nominator said, "Through events, outreach and volunteer opportunities, she has a positive impact at L'Arche and in Erie, building stronger relationships in the community." — CS
Growing up in Erie, Curtis Waidley got to spend a good deal of time outdoors, doing the magical-seeming things that kids do. "However, I still always caught myself hypnotized by dramatic photographs of Western landscapes," he describes at his website, naturalstatescollective.com. "I even remember changing the desktop wallpaper on my parents' home computer once a week to photos of Yosemite and Canyonlands just so I could daydream about one day seeing these places for myself. At that age, the West seemed like another world."
It's that spirit of wanderlust that would shape both his life and his career.
In 2018, he embarked on a six-week journey to finally see 13 of our national parks, still visiting one per year.
A graduate of Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy and Mercyhurst University, Waidley studied design, and it was there when his project to illustrate America's national parks first began to take shape, beginning with a series of eight posters for his senior thesis. Later, during the pandemic, he launched Natural States Collective, which is now a successful retail platform for his artwork and apparel. He's since shipped orders to all 50 states, ethically sources his paper, and donates 10 percent of his total proceeds to National Park Foundation.
He's a former professional photographer as well, having worked for American Eagle, Philmont Scout Ranch BSA, Lorei Portraits, and Level Red Boxing. His work has been exhibited in the Erie Art Museum Spring Show, and he has been a grant recipient from Erie Arts & Culture.
A member of Radius CoWork, Waidley works remotely full-time as the graphic designer for the American Stage Theater Company in St. Petersburg, Florida, which was named "Theatre Company of the Decade" by Broadway World. — NW
Good communication can be difficult — a source of woe and frustration in many relationships. But Mary Wassell has turned communication into an art through her day-to-day duties at Parker Phillips. "I work as part of a collaborative team on large-scale communications plans, projects, and initiatives. I help to strategize, craft, and execute marketing and communications plans for clients. I write copy for press releases, op-eds, newsletters, social media posts, and marketing collateral. I draft and distribute media materials, including press releases, media advisories, and pitch calls. I assist with project management and day-to-day communications with clients, while also supporting the social media and digital marketing manager with oversight of all social media accounts. I also plan and implement events, including press conferences, both in-person and virtual, and manage press inquiries and media relations." Basically, Mary is the queen of effective communication.
This hometown hero, a graduate of both McDowell and Gannon University, is also a member of the Young Erie Philanthropists, the Northwestern Pennsylvania Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, and serves on her church's parish council.
Among her many accomplishments, one of her proudest was being a part of Level Up PA, in which she played a role in successfully launching a campaign to persuade lawmakers to invest $100 million in Pennsylvania's 100 poorest school districts. "As a result," Wassell reflects, "the first Level Up supplement in Pennsylvania was passed in 2021 — a big step in the right direction to close the inadequate and inequitable education funding gap."
And we can look forward to many more years of Mary's contributions continuing in Erie, as she loves being a resident of our city, "I couldn't be prouder to call Erie my home. Erie is in a period of constant growth — and it is very exciting to not only watch, but also have the opportunity to play a part in it." — EP
Starting a restaurant is no easy task — from securing and designing a space, to building a brand, and creating a unique and craveable menu. Then comes the day-to-day of executing a successful dining experience for the hundreds of guests who come through the doors. All of this has been achieved and sustained by Adam Williams, who has not only helped make Bar Rōnin what it is (and it is something special: a fine dining experience unparalleled in culinary creativity in Erie), but is currently in the process of doing it all again, with a second (super secret) restaurant planned.
A Union City native, Adam earned his culinary arts degree from Le Cordon Bleu in Pittsburgh before coming back to Erie to build and plan two restaurants from the ground up. His business partner and friend Dan Kern comments, "Adam has had a huge influence on creating and bringing great food and spaces to our wonderful city. He is often underappreciated and doesn't receive equal credit for the things we have built together." Bringing great food to Erie is very important to Adam, who feels like providing a space where people can enjoy themselves and appreciate his creative dishes is his true goal: "I want to create multiple spots for dining and drinking where people can gather and just have a great time with some great company and do the absolute best job I can everyday to provide that for this community."
Among his accomplishments, Adam is most proud of winning the Western PA Lamb Fest, a culinary competition in Pittsburgh that pitted his dishes against many of the best chefs in the region, which resulted in appearances in Table and Pittsburgh Magazine. When he's not pouring over creative new menu items or cooking them up in the kitchen, he enjoys spending time with his dog Daisy and playing golf with his dad. And lucky for Erieites (and our taste buds) he has no plans to move away — instead, he plans to continue to build upon the momentum he's created with Bar Rōnin. — EP