Teachers & Staff

Annette Gerlitz Appel
Sunflower Babies and Little Sprouts Teacher

Where did you grow up? I am a native Floridian. I grew up in Boca Raton and attended St. Joan of Arc School, Pope John Paul High School and then went off to the University of Florida. I lived in the same house my entire life (except when I went away to college) until I got married.
How long have you been at Sunflower? I started at Sunflower, as a Mama, in Circle of song in Aug 2014. I started facilitating Sunflower Babies and Little Sprouts in 2016.
What is your favorite memory of play from your childhood?
I have two favorite childhood memories of play. The first is running around in the woods of my father’s nursery (in west Delray Beach). My brother and I would traipse around for hours, getting muddy, looking for animals, and playing hide-and-seek. When I was in middle school, I remember playing “manhunt” (the big kid version of hide-and-week) with my friends.
What do you love to observe Sunflower students do? I love to watch and I’m privileged to be a part of the growth and change Sunflower Babies and their mamas go through over the course of that first year of life.
You’re going to Mars. You can bring one thing to remind you of home. What is it? If I went to Mars, I would bring a shoe box with me. It would contain a photo of our wedding, photos of the birth of each of our girls, a family photo (including all of our crazy pets), and a few of my favorite drawings that our girls have created.

 

Annike Venoy
Little Seedlings Lead Teacher

Where did you grow up? I grew up in a small coastal town called Drobak, outside Oslo, Norway.
How long have you been at Sunflower? This is my sixth year at Sunflower: two as a parent and four as a teacher.
What is your favorite memory of play form your childhood?
My favorite memories are playing in the forest outside our house and climbing to the tops of trees.
What do you love to observe Sunflower students do? I love to observe them being engrossed in play and exploration while they are being fully, authentically themselves.
You’re going to Mars. You can bring one thing to remind you of home. What is it? I would bring a hard drive full of pictures and videos of my kids’ adventures!

 

Ashley Caskill
Administrative Director

Where did you grow up? Miami, FL
How long have you been at Sunflower? Four years.
What is your favorite memory of play form your childhood? Riding my bike with my neighborhood friends (without parents) and finding secret hiding places.
What do you love to observe Sunflower students do? When they cover themselves in mud and paint and totally immerse themselves in their play.
You’re going to Mars. You can bring one thing to remind you of home. What is it? My cat (in an astronaut suit).

Colleen Putnam
Seedlings Teacher

Where did you grow up? Western Massachusetts
How long have you been at Sunflower? About a half year.
What is your favorite memory of play form your childhood? Climbing trees by myself near my house or going in the babbling brook by my grandmother’s farm.
What do you love to observe Sunflower students do? I love their laughter and their sheer joy.
You’re going to Mars. You can bring one thing to remind you of home. What is it? A scrapbook of my family photos, stuck with Velcro so none of the photos float away.

Daniela Cruz Valle
Seedlings Teacher

Where did you grow up? Honduras
How long have you been at Sunflower? This is my first year!
What is your favorite memory of play form your childhood? I would grab trays and go to the tops of the hills near our house and slide down with my friends. Sometimes we’d hollow out trash cans, sit in the middle, and spin all the way down the hills.
What do you love to observe Sunflower students do? How they share with each other because they want to and how they come up with conflict resolutions by themselves without adults.
You’re going to Mars. You can bring one thing to remind you of home. What is it? Rice and beans from my home in Honduras.

Dorota Szladewska
Financial Director

Where did you grow up? Northern Poland
How long have you been at Sunflower? Ten years; five years with my children.
What is your favorite memory of play form your childhood? Burying treasures in the dirt near my house and playing tricks with jump rope.
What do you love to observe Sunflower students do? Their interactions with each other and the way they solve problems by sharing and talking with each other.
You’re going to Mars. You can bring one thing to remind you of home. What is it? Apples from where I grew up in Poland.

Haidor Tru
Seedlings Teacher

Where did you grow up? Estonia
How long have you been at Sunflower? Six years as a teacher; 2 1/2 years as a parent with my son.
What is your favorite memory of play form your childhood? I was in the forest a lot, alone (it was safe) and I liked to explore near my grandmother’s house.
What do you love to observe Sunflower students do? When they are playing with water in the Playscape. It gets interesting to watch!
You’re going to Mars. You can bring one thing to remind you of home. What is it? My son.

Irena Lawrence
Seedlings Teacher

Where did you grow up? Macedonia
How long have you been at Sunflower? Two-and-a-half years.
What is your favorite memory of play form your childhood? Climbing trees in the village where my grandmother lived with my cousin.
What do you love to observe Sunflower students do? Everything! If I had to choose one thing, it would be how they interact with nature.
You’re going to Mars. You can bring one thing to remind you of home. What is it? A rock from Earth to remind me of the Earth.

Ilysia Shattuck
Operations and Development Director

Where did you grow up? I grew up in California and Alaska.
How long have you been at Sunflower?  I first became a part of Sunflower in 2011 when my oldest child was two years old. I have officially worked for Sunflower since 2014.
What is your favorite memory of play form your childhood?
My favorite play memory is boulder hopping along Alaska’s rivers.
What do you love to observe Sunflower students do? Be themselves.
You’re going to Mars. You can bring one thing to remind you of home. What is it? My camera, to see the saved pictures of my family, and add new images of my Mars adventure.

 

Jenn Zoole
Office Assistant

Where did you grow up? McMinnville, Oregon
How long have you been at Sunflower? Mom of a Seedling for two years. This is my third year of work.
What is your favorite memory of play form your childhood? Exploring, pretending and sloshing around in the “lake” that formed in our backyard when there was lots of rain.
What do you love to observe Sunflower students do? Kids having the time and space to figure things out (how to climb a tree, create art, collaborate together, etc.) at their own individual pace and in their own unique way.
You’re going to Mars. You can bring one thing to remind you of home. What is it? If I couldn’t bring my child or my pet, I’d choose Benji, the bear, who has been with me my whole life, through all of my numerous moves.

Jess Hirshfield
Little Seedlings Teacher and Communications Assistant

Where did you grow up? Voorheesville, NY, and Arlington, VA.
How long have you been at Sunflower? For three years with my son; this is my second year as a teacher.
What is your favorite memory of play form your childhood? Running down the long, sloping hill of our gravel driveway and jumping into the autumn leaves my dad had just raked so carefully for probably hours. Playing hide-and-seek with my best friend Cathy to foil her seven older brothers’ attempts to annoy us. And playing in my bedroom for hours by myself, creating or re-creating stories for my Star Wars action figures.
What do you love to observe Sunflower students do? I love to see the freedom of their bodies in motion: the ways they confidently climb to the tops of trees, haul themselves up on and over the ropes course, run in circles with the big tire swing, and learn to deftly balance on the ball near the rope swing and reach out for rope by themselves with so much determination and courage. I also love the way they comfort another Seedling when they see she or he is upset.
You’re going to Mars. You can bring one thing to remind you of home. What is it? Our son. He’ll probably get there before me, though!

Lindsey Mills
Seedlings Teacher

Where did you grow up? Lake Worth, FL.
How long have you been at Sunflower? About one year.
What is your favorite memory of play form your childhood? Being out in nature by myself, by the lake near my grandparent’s home in North Carolina.
What do you love to observe Sunflower students do? When they do dramatic play and storytelling to each other.
You’re going to Mars. You can bring one thing to remind you of home. What is it? My cat!

Liz Licht
Seedlings Teacher

Where did you grow up? I grew up in Montreal, Canada, and Hollywood, Florida.
How long have you been at Sunflower? I am beginning my fifth year as a Sunflower teacher.
What is your favorite memory of play form your childhood?
My favorite childhood memories of play all surround being a camper at a small french summer camp in Quebec call “Autour du Monde” which means  “Around the World.” It was a very rough and rugged camp and I loved everything about it, especially the waterfront. I remember washing my hair in the freezing cold lake water and seeing the soap bubbling and floating in the lake. I remember canoeing through the calm waters. I remember wandering through the muck and goo at the water’s edge. 
What do you love to observe Sunflower students do? I love watching Sunflower students climb trees. They feel so strong, capable, and powerful physically and mentally, especially when they accomplish this feat after multiple attempts. Every child should be encouraged to climb trees!!! 
You’re going to Mars. You can bring one thing to remind you of home. What is it? I would bring photos of my three dogs. They would remind me of all the love, joy, and everything that is pure and kind on Earth!

 

Melissa Franklin
Seedlings Teacher & Volunteer and Events Coordinator

Where did you grow up? Port of Spain, Trinidad and Miami FL
How long have you been at Sunflower? I have worked at Sunflower for a year, though I have been a part of the community for three years while my daughter attended classes here.
What is your favorite memory of play form your childhood? One of my favourite memories playing in my youth is riding my bike through the hills and mountains in my neighbourhood with about 10 to 15 other kids, getting lost in the beauty of the land, searching for faeries, making up games as we played, and not having to come home till dark.
What do you love to observe Sunflower students do?  I love to see Sunflower student’s problem-solve, to see the look on their faces of pure joy and satisfaction that “they” did it! The empowerment and self-reliance are amazing to me: it solidifies the belief that they are capable and self-directed play is imperative for their development.
You’re going to Mars. You can bring one thing to remind you of home. What is it? This is a tough one! Can a plant survive on Mars? OK. I’ll bring music, books, and my pictures. That’s too much? One thing? I’ll bring a photo of my family!

Michelle Barrett
Little Seedlings and Seedlings Teacher

Where did you grow up? Guangzhou, China.
How long have you been at Sunflower? Two years with my son; this is my third year as a teacher.
What is your favorite memory of play form your childhood? Using blankets and pillows to make castles and play “princess”.
What do you love to observe Sunflower students do? I love to observe how they resolve conflicts, share ideas, and take risks.
You’re going to Mars. You can bring one thing to remind you of home. What is it? A picture of my family!

Michele Service
Seedlings Teacher

Where did you grow up? I grew up in Barbados but came to Englewood New Jersey when I was 12 years old.
How long have you been at Sunflower? I am beginning my fifth year as a Sunflower teacher.
What is your favorite memory of play form your childhood?
My favorite childhood memories are living in Barbados a block away from the beach.
What do you love to observe Sunflower students do? Play, make pictures, and listen to each other’s stories.
You’re going to Mars. You can bring one thing to remind you of home. What is it? Pictures of my loved ones.

 

Simone Chin
Assistant Director of the Sunflower Play Initiative

Where did you grow up? I was born and raised in Miami, Florida.
How long have you been at Sunflower? I started working for the Sunflower Play Initiative in January 2019. I have been a Seedlings Mom for five years.
What is your favorite memory of play form your childhood? I remember “mothering” the tadpoles in a lake behind my mom’s friend’s house. I took “good care” of them as best I could and then put them back in the lake when it was time for me to leave.
What do you love to observe Sunflower students do? I love to see the children paint themselves (face and body) and others. Being painted on feels like a relaxing spa treatment.
You’re going to Mars. You can bring one thing to remind you of home. What is it? Chocolate (assuming my memory of life on earth will be intact).

Susan Caruso is Director and Founder of Sunflower Creative Arts, a nonprofit organization that offers hands-on learning programs in Play, Nature, and the Arts for children and their parents. In June 2018, Susan started the Sunflower Play Initiative, a community outreach program that strives to give all children access to child-directed free play. She is a specialist in guiding children and adults to discover their passions, realize their potential and develop a strong personal voice.

She has been an educator, master player, parenting mentor, musician and compassionate voice and advocate for children for over 30 years. Susan is a member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), and an innovator in early childhood education. Her inspired, child-centered teaching approach led her to develop Sunflower’s educational model of respect for the individual, learning through experience and learning within the community. 

In addition to directing Sunflower’s vision and philosophy, Susan enjoys sharing her insights and continuing to learn and grow daily by working with children, parents and teachers through teaching classes and workshops, consulting educators and youth organizations and presenting at conferences.

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