Jill Hrinda-Patten is the founder and current Executive Director of Mission Empower and is also an accomplished individual with significant visual impairment and physical disabilities. Jill leads the organization with a perspective centered on independent living, inclusion for persons living with disabilities, and family empowerment. Ms. Hrinda-Patten earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Edinboro Pennsylvania University. Jill started her professional career within the Independent Living movement at a local center of independent living called Voices for Independence.
She owes her success to her parents, who had high expectations for their daughter. Furthermore, her parents worked to ensure Jill was fully included in the general education setting throughout school, even though she was born with a physical disability and lost her sight completely in the eleventh grade. She and her husband adopted their son from Guatemala, which helped them understand the joys and barriers that parents who have children with disabilities face. They have worked hard to keep their son, Rudy, included within general education courses at his neighborhood school, even as new needs and disabilities became evident. Rudy is on track to graduate from high school in 2022 and has faced many new barriers made more intense by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ms. Hrinda-Patten is not the typical Executive Director. She pitches in to teach a class at the Youth ENVISION Summit, her passion project for encouraging the next generation of youth living with disabilities.
Norma LewisMission Employment Connector
Norma is the youngest of 5 children and lives in Girard, PA. With her wonderful husband, Rick, she has raised her two adult children, Michael and Rebecca, and now has a precious grandson, Riley. Having been active in youth groups and her church, as well as having owned her own business for 13 years, Norma saw a need to guide young people she hired. In 2019, she was certified by Marc Gold & Associates as a Discovery Facilitator and Job Developer and is excited to lead Mission Empower’s Discovery Program.
When she’s not helping young people prepare for their futures, Norma is either spending time with her dogs, traveling with her husband in their RV, or tending her garden. She is thrilled to work with Mission Employment and is committed to helping Erie County youth lead fulfilling lives.
Arthur PeapplesAccounting Manager
Art moved to Erie as a small child and has lived and worked here for most of his life. He has been a small business owner in the home improvement industry, and also worked as a tractor- trailer driver. Art recently graduated from Edinboro University earning Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with a concentration in Accounting. As the Accounting Manager at Mission Empower since 2017, Art keeps our accounting functions running smoothly.
Darlene BrownMission Read Coordinator
An Erie native, Darlene attended City of Erie public schools prior to studying business at Mercyhurst College and Penn State Behrend. She pursued her lifelong dream to become an educator, earning an Elementary Education degree at Ivy Tech Community College in South Bend, Indiana. In 2004, Darlene and her family moved to Granger, Indiana for her husband’s job. She worked for the South Bend Community School Corporation for nine years as a substitute teacher, teaching assistant, and instructional assistant with reading and math. She left the classroom to be a full-time caregiver to her terminally ill husband, who passed in September of 2018 from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). She returned to the Erie area in 2019 to be closer to her children and family.
Darlene believes that learning is an individualized process which every person is capable of, and that assisting students along this path is a teacher’s privilege. She enjoys being an advocate for children with disabilities and helping to unleash the potential within each student. She believes that through a collaboration of efforts, students can be taught to achieve the established skills set forth by society and surpass the expectations previously placed upon them.
Darlene is a widow, mother of six adult children, and grandmother. She now makes her home in North East, Pennsylvania.
Elaine SmithMission Employment Connector
Born and raised in sunny Southern California, Elaine brought her warm heart to Erie at the end of 2021. She is an experienced caregiver and has worked in daycare and at schools.
One of her most memorable experiences was volunteering to participate in activities with her high school’s special education class, which showed her the joys and opportunities of working alongside those with disabilities. She credits her dedication to service to her mother, who, as a teacher, instilled in her the value of making every child feel important.
Elaine resides nine-year-old daughter, Hazel, and is still getting accustomed to Erie weather!
Molly KonzelCommunity Connector
Molly moved to Erie, PA in 2011 from Cleveland where for several years worked in the non-
profit sector. Molly has experience working with families with a variety of backgrounds and
needs. Prior to starting her career, Molly attained her bachelor’s degree from Wright State
University in Sociology.
Molly took time off from the workforce while her children were young but continued staying
active in the community as a volunteer with SafeNet, Hospice, and the school her children
attend. When she learned of Mission Empower, she immediately became interested in
becoming part of the team.
Molly resides in Erie with her husband Steve, her two sons (Sam and Charlie), one pug (Josie),
and her husband’s dog (Tully). When not at Mission Empower, Molly can be found as an Uber
driver for her kids and attending their activities.
Cassie HoyerOutreach, Office and Youth ENVISION Coordinator
Cassandra Hoyer graduated from Girard High School in 2019. She has had quite a busy 2022. She and her soon-to-be husband bought a house, bought a new car, and had a wonderful baby boy in 2022. Cassandra always strives to do the best of her abilities in any task. Cassandra is very good at her multitasking. She often finds herself working on all three of her job projects at once. On top of her original job duties, she’s often helping out with some of the technical aspects such as computer issues, and printer issues. Cassandra loves her job, and often states “I just love the work we do to help youth and families”. Cassandra is caring, kind, and a very hard worker.
Cassandra has always loved helping youth. Her younger brother struggles with ODD and ADHD. She has been there for him to help with homework and just to talk to him if he needed to vent. Cassandra also has anxiety. There were many obstacles that she had to overcome in her life. She feels very strongly about helping youth overcome their obstacles as well.
Cassandra resides in Erie with her husband, Devin, and their son, Hunter, and two dogs (Gunner and Bella). In Cassandra’s free time, she loves spending time with her family.
Conny JamesFamily Support Connector
Born and raised in Erie County, Conny James is a mother of three children and has one grandson. She loves to surround herself with family. On some days you might find her on a beach looking for beach glass.
She is self driven and has always wanted to help people and children out. Between working in the past as a home health care professional to a toddler teacher at Lollipop U, she’s always caring and helping people of all ages.
Joseph PhelpsWeb Consultant
Joe graduated from Allegheny College with a bachelors degree in Environmental Science and Studio Art (double major). He was inspired to create a successful program those who have disabilities during college when he led a chapter of Best Buddies International. Joe was the youth program coordinator for Youth ENVISION, focusing on developing a two-pronged Transition Success Pilot Program utilizing best practices of self-advocacy / determination and building social capital of youth ages 14-18 in Erie County. He now serves the organization remotely, focusing on web development and design.