Teachers & Staff

Susan CarusoSusan
Founder/Director of Sunflower Creative Arts

Susan Caruso is the 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 families. 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, 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.

Ashley Caskill
Chief Operating Officer

Ashley Caskill grew up in Aventura, Florida. She began her career in 2010 as an administrator and registrar at the Florida Institute of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Delray Beach after attending Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. Ashley loves living in a beach town and spends her free time cooking new recipes, exploring different parks and natural areas, and taking ecstatic dance/movement workshops. She found her home here at Sunflower in 2016 and is now our Chief Operating Officer.

Ashley’s passion for Play, Nature and the Arts as well as respect for the individual began long before then, making her an excellent addition to the Sunflower Team.

DorotaDorota Szladewska
Financial Director

Dorota Szladewska was born and raised in Poland. Her curiosity and love of travel brought her to the US where she completed her education and started her family. She earned BS in Marketing, BA in Accounting and MBA at FAU. She worked for few years in the corporate world but left her job once her children were born. Then she found Sunflower where her children were part of Circle of Song, then Sprouts and Seedlings programs. This program, people, environment were like no other and she dreamed of working there. Luckily a job opportunity came up and she started to work at Sunflower in 2010 helping in the office with accounting tasks. The responsibilities grew over time, expanded into different administrative areas, and she is currently working as a Financial Director.

Annette Gerlitz Appel
Director of Parent and Child Programs/Rising Executive Director (2025)/ Toolbox Facilitator/ Bridge Guide/ Social Media Editor

Annette Gerlitz Appel is a mama to three girls, a Florida native, a lover of books, nature, and traveling. She studied at the University of Florida and received her Bachelor of Arts in Special Education and her Master of Education in Early Childhood Education. She is also a member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

From 2004-2012, she worked in the Palm Beach County School District. There, she taught first and second grades, as well as Reading Recovery, and held the Reading Coach position. During this time, she worked with teachers and their students, focusing on innovative ideas and best practices to improve reading instruction at all grade levels.

Annette is the Parent and Child Program Director at Sunflower Creative Arts, a private tutor, and a homeschool cooperative lead teacher. She has facilitated parent-child classes at Sunflower Creative Arts since 2017, setting up play environments that support children’s natural curiosity, love of nature, and problem-solving. Annette has also created and presented parent toolboxes sharing and guiding families through the joys and challenges of parenting.



IrenaIrena Dimitrova
Rising Program Director (2025)/ Sunflower Bridge Guide/ Social Media Director

Irena grew up in Macedonia, where she had a childhood full of freedom, nature and old fashioned play in the neighborhood streets. She is a mama of a little boy named Phoenix, passionate gardener, traveler and has a great love for cooking and adventures.

Since 2013, when she began volunteering at a preschool in Nashville, Tennessee, Irena has been a loving, gentle guide for families and children. Before she began her playful journey as a member of the Sunflower staff family in 2016, she worked as a VPK teacher at a learning center in Boca Raton for six months. She also spent a year volunteering at The Children’s Garden in Delray Beach, assisting children in connection with nature, sharing gardening tips, and facilitating birthday parties.

She holds a Child Development Associate and Directors Credentials. Her extensive experience shows through the connections and trust she has created with the families she feels honored to have met, worked with, and guided over the last 11 years.

Her teaching style is based on respect and trust for the individual, community building and child-led learning through play, nature and the arts.


Michele Service
Director of Build & Play Outreach Program, Seedlings Sub and Mentor

Michele Service is the Director of Sunflower’s Outreach Program – Build & Play. She is an artist, tree-hugger, and educator who enjoys putting smiles on students’ faces and being an encouragement to exceed expectations at every opportunity. Originally from Barbados, Michele earned her B.A. in Commercial Art from Stockton State University and her M.A. in Education from Fielding Graduate University. She has pursued many opportunities as a Sales Administrator, Director of a private school, Paraprofessional, art instructor, teacher at a Charter School and co-founder of a community garden before joining Sunflower Creative Arts as a teacher in 2015 and then Director of Build & Play in 2021.


Karen Rizzo
Development Director

Karen is a proud Sunflower parent whose daughter Sloane has been a part of Sunflower since she was a baby. Karen is so passionate about Sunflower that when the opportunity to join the staff was offered to her, she excitedly accepted. She is looking forward to offering her professional and parenting experience in helping grow and raise the funds necessary for Sunflower to continue making an impact in the community. Karen graduated with a BA in Education from the University of London, England. Prior to Sunflower, she worked as a teacher, a counselor for at-risk youth, and in educational marketing.


Danielle Parker
Seedlings Teacher/ Build & Play Counselor/ Sunflower Bridge Guide, Circle of Song

Danielle began her teaching journey in 2013 and has since taught in multiple Children’s Theaters and preschools in the Southeast. She brings her love for learning the whys and hows of child development to the table. Since joining Sunflower Creative Arts in 2021, she has seen firsthand the positive difference the Sunflower Method has on children and adults alike.


HaidorHaidor Truu
Seedlings Teacher/ Build & Play Lead Counselor

Before I started working at Sunflower Creative Arts, I was one of the parents who needed to relearn almost everything about parenting. My oldest children were born in Estonia and I’m a little sad I didn’t have the knowledge and experience I have now. There’s so much heart in Sunflower. In Estonia, I worked with children at a children’s shelter but compared to Sunflower, my work was very different. Every morning I go to work, I’m excited to be there and I believe the other teachers feel the same way. My work and the people I’m working with have changed my life so much. I like to build new and sometimes strange things for the Seedlings to use…I’m a Seedling too!

JulieJulie Abdallah
Seedlings Teacher/ Build & Play Lead Counselor

My name is Julie Abdallah, I was born in the United States and raised in the beautiful country of Palestine in the Middle East. I am a mother of six amazing kids, 2 college graduates, and 4 attending FAU. After working as a nanny for many years, my love for children drove me to obtain my certification and begin my dream career as a preschool teacher. I started my journey at Sunflower as a Seedlings teacher in 2021 and began working as a Build and Play lead counselor at the beginning of 2022.
I am looking forward to more amazing adventures with these curious kids and loving families.

MelissaMelissa Franklin
Seedlings Teacher/ Ice Castle Coordinator

Melissa is a lifelong artist and forever learning new ways to be creative. She’s worked in art galleries, photography and design and continues to perfect her craft in watercolors and acrylic paintings. Melissa began her teaching journey in 2018 after her daughter (a former Seedling) bridged out of the Seedlings program. She saw the positive effects the program had on children and parents as they learned, created and played and wanted to be a part of that journey. Under the loving guidance of Susan and her fellow teachers, Melissa adds her creativity and joy to the Sunflower team.

Michelle Barrett
Seedlings Teacher

Michelle Barrett grew up in China and earned her International Business Degree at the University of Guangzhou. She started at Sunflower as a Seedling parent 9 years ago, when her son was two years old. She very much liked the philosophy and decided to become a bigger part of the organization. Two years later, she was working in the summer camp as a Parent Consultant, then a Little Seeding Teacher, and now a Seedling Teacher. Michelle loves the growth she shares with Sunflower and its community. Facilitating the children’s play and helping them grow with independent and creative minds. Guiding children to learn to be confident and compassionate. These are Michelle’s two favorite things at Sunflower.

Natasha Ahles
Roots & Shoots Club Facilitator

Natasha Ahles is a marine biologist who’s worked with sea turtles for over 20 years. She has 3 children who were all Seedlings and are certain they’ll hold Sunflower in their hearts forever. Natasha has always had a deep love and respect for nature and it is her greatest pleasure to be with kids and their families in nature. After volunteering with Roots and Shoots for a few years she has been happy to step into the lead facilitator role and continue working with children as they think of ways to help people, animals, and the planet while honoring Sunflower’s pillars!

Lauri Marks
Sunflower Sprouts Teacher

Lauri has been an early childhood educator for over 20 years. She believes play is the foundation for development and growth cognitively, physically and emotionally. As a mother of 2 adult children Lauri cherishes spending quality time with her family. She loves being outdoors and practicing yoga which has also led to her becoming a certified children’s yoga instructor. All of these factors have contributed to her enjoying teaching and being a part of the Sunflower community since 2021.

Colleen Putnam
Lead Little Seedlings Teacher/ Sunflower Sprouts Teacher

Colleen Putnam has been at Sunflower for four playful years, dedicated to fostering curiosity and personal growth through play- based teaching. With a background in the arts and a commitment to learning within our natural world and with one another, she brings her talents into her own teaching style. Beyond Sunflower, she is a mother to four beautiful daughters, exemplifying her dedication to early childhood education and the importance play is for children’s development. Enjoys welcoming new families to Sunflower. She takes great joy in her workday every day- even the tough, messy ones.

Colleen looks forward to helping be a guide for your child this year towards independence and helping families make a lifelong connection to our Sunflower community.


Rea Kanouse
Little Seedlings Teacher/Sunflower Sprouts Teacher

Rea is new to the Sunflower team but has been a Sunflower mom since 2016 when her oldest of 3 children started in the Seedlings program. She has worked with children for 6 years prior to becoming a mother, as a relationship development intervention therapist, a teacher’s aide and ESE ASD support teacher. Rea earned her M.S. in Psychology and has taken classes in Montessori method and many hands-on workshops in several teaching modalities. She sees nature and art as integral to well-being and development and is excited to continue her journey learning from and contributing to what she considers to be a source of inspiration and positivity for our community, that is Sunflower Creative Arts.

Emily Francisco
Little Seedlings Teacher Assist

Emily began her teaching journey in 2014 after receiving a Bachelor’s in Elementary Education from FAU. She then taught 2nd grade for 3 years. Emily was introduced to Sunflower Creative Arts in 2019 when she and her son joined Sunflower Babies. She quickly resonated with the Sunflower philosophy and has since been involved for almost 4 years.

Marisol Castro
Sunflower Bridge Guide/ Seedlings Interim Teacher ​

Marisol is a friendly Montessori Guide and has worked with children for more than 10 years.
She is a Spanish-speaking teacher and tutor. She is a mother of 2 college kids and a certified Positive Parenting Guide who has helped many families and parents in their beautiful imperfect path of parenthood.
She began a new adventure as a Sunflower Seedling Teacher in 2021 and is currently finishing an Early Childhood Environmental Certificate at FAU.

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