Get to know The Growing Place staff
Corina Dekker, Director
Corina Dekker was born and raised in The Netherlands and has lived in The United States since 1990. She holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in education. As an early childhood educator, Corina enjoys watching children grow and develop from their daily experiences. Sharing her knowledge about the importance of the early years with staff and families is something she feels passionate about. Corina joined The Growing Place community in 2013 with a strong commitment to offering quality early childhood education in a Christian setting. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with family, traveling and reading.
Debbie Fernandez, Office Manager
Debra (Debbie) Fernandez - a second generation native Miamian - was born and raised in Miami, FL. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Special Education. She is a Florida Certified K-12 teacher with ESOL endorsement and also has her Director’s credential. She believes in the power of education along with the power of play. Preschool allows the opportunity for both. She enjoys being able to support children in discovery, imagination, and curiosity. She came to The Growing Place in 1985 when she was looking for a loving, Christian environment for her two preschool children. She taught PreK-3 for three years while her children were attending. She went on to teach 4th grade and Kindergarten at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School. In 1988, she returned to The Growing Place to work as part of the administration. The Growing Place holds a warm spot in her heart. She has been married for 35 years to her high school sweetheart. She has a daughter, a son and 3 awesome grandsons.
Ellen Cianflone, Administrative Assistant
Ellen Cianflone was born in Carbondale, PA, snuggled in the Pocono Mountains – so, yes it was cold with loads of snow! That is pretty much why she ended up in South Florida. Ellen has earned two associate degrees - in math and science from SUNY Morrisville and business from Keystone College, LaPlume, PA. Prior to being hired at The Growing Place in 2012, Ellen worked with Standard Register as a project facilitator and as an Executive Assistant. Ellen is the proud mother of two children so this leaves little free time, but when it does occur, she enjoys crafting.
Kris Wood, Curriculum and Human Resources Coordinator
Kris Wood was born in New York City, NY and spent her formidable years in Leonia, NJ. She holds a bachelor’s degree in physical education with a specialty in therapeutic recreation and a Master of Arts in Drama Therapy. Growing up with an educational psychologist father, her early life was surrounded by the likes of Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, Dr. Myrtle McGraw, and Dr. Lewis Lipsitt to name a few. It is from Dr. McGraw that she learned “...and a child shall lead.” She feels that this mantra lends itself to the HighScope curriculum and the process of “active participatory learning” as the foundation of its philosophy. She joined The Growing Place 17 years ago as a mom when her eldest son attended. In her “free time” she enjoys being with her family, watching her son’s play soccer and water polo, and working out in the gym. On her bucket list is to do a mini-triathlon.
Ninorka Caballero, Lead Teacher
Ninorka Caballero was born in Venezuela and moved to Miami in 1995. She began her coursework in education in 2005 after her son was born, because she wanted to know as much as possible about early childhood in order to be “the best mother ever.” She has an associate degree in early childhood education and is currently working on her bachelor’s degree. She joined The Growing Place family in November 2014. She enjoys watching children’s personalities unfold and being part of their development. She spends most of her free time with her family.
Mary Cardentey, Lead Teacher
Mary Cardentey was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, and has lived in the United States since 1994. She holds a bachelor's degree in early childhood education. She has been working at The Growing Place since 1996. During her career as a teacher, she has had the opportunity to work with different grade levels. She works daily on building a positive, emotionally and physically safe environment where children feel loved and motivated to learn and stretch their knowledge. She also shares her love for nature with her students and encourages environmental stewardship on each one of them.
Veronica Castro, Lead Teacher
Veronica Castro was born and raised in Lima, Peru. She holds a degree in early childhood education. Before coming to Florida in 2008, she worked in two preschools in Lima. Veronica joined The Growing Place community in 2009 with much enthusiasm, ready to share her knowledge in child development and to offer high-quality education to children and their families. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends. She also likes going for walks and shopping.
Lucy de la Hoz, Lead Teacher
Lucy de la Hoz was born in Miami, Florida. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and an associate degree in early childhood education. Lucy loves working with children. “It’s so rewarding to see the smiles and the unconditional love that children give you every day.” Lucy joined The Growing Place community in 1991. In her free time, she enjoys shopping, going out to dinner and reading.
Alejandrina Dopico, Lead Teacher
Alejandrina Dopico was born and raised in Mexico and has lived in the United States for twenty years. She joined The Growing Place as a parent back in 1998. During that time, she fell in love with working with children and decided to go back to school to get her Florida Child Care Professional credential. As an early childhood educator, Alejandrina is a dedicated and creative teacher who provides her children with engaging, meaningful and active learning experiences. She re-joined The Growing Place in 2005 as her youngest daughter began school. In her free time, Alejandrina enjoys going to the beach and spending time with family and friends.
Katie Fay, Lead Teacher
Katie Fay was born in England and raised in Texas. She holds a bachelor’s degree in geography with a minor in education and has spent her career teaching students from preschool through high school in England, Japan, and across the United States. As a mother of two young children, Katie understands the importance of making preschool a fun and nurturing environment in order to enable children to develop. 2016 is Katie’s first year teaching at The Growing Place, but she looks forward to being a part of a wonderful community. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with family and friends.
Marthy Ferrer, Lead Teacher
Marthy Ferrer was born in Miramar, Cuba. She is the youngest of four children raised in South Miami, and has been married for 33 years; and also raised her three children here. Marthy has been with The Growing Place since 2004 and holds a Child Development Associate (CDA) awarded by CDA National Credentialing Program. She is an active member of the HighScope Association, the North American Reggio Emillia Alliance (NAREA) and of The National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC). As an early childhood educator, Marthy has a passion for education and enjoys working with children by stimulating their curiosity, imagination and nurturing cognitive and social development. Along with spending time with her family, Marthy enjoys the arts, music, and photography.
Mary Ann Griese, Lead Teacher
Mary Ann Griese was born and raised in Miami where she lives with the loves of her life- her husband and two children. Mary Ann has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Bachelor of Science degree in Exceptional Student Education with ESOL endorsement. Mary Ann brings many years of hands-on experience working with children and is committed to creating a warm, loving environment where children are free to explore the joy of discovery and learning. In her spare time, Mary Ann, enjoys boating, reading and spending time with her family and friends.
OIga Martinez, Lead Teacher
Olga Martinez is originally from Mexico. She moved to Miami seven years ago when she was blessed to marry her amazing husband - now the father of her two beautiful children. Both of her children attend The Growing Place. Olga holds a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in science, with a focus on Multidisciplinary Studies for International Teachers. She has had the privilege of working as a Teacher Assistant for Kindergarten and then later as a Lead Teacher for the 3 to 4-year-olds back in Mexico in an internationally recognized school. Olga joined The Growing Place in 2014. She is excited about working at the school, as she shares the same philosophy in teaching The Growing Place. In her free time, Olga enjoys spending time with her family and bike riding.
Mayra Mestre, Lead Teacher
Mayra Mestre was born in Cuba and raised in Miami, Florida. She has an Associate of Arts in Early Childhood Education and Art. She was a costume designer for various dance studios and schools. As a preschool educator, Mayra brings a creative and positive energy to her classroom. She is passionate about teaching young children and learning from them. Mayra has acquired many years of wonderful memories since she joined The Growing Place community in 1986. She is committed to ensuring that her children are safe, nurtured and loved. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with family, cooking, and dancing.
Maria Morales, Lead Teacher
Maria Morales was born and raised in Cuba. In the fall of 1995, she decided to move to the United States. She settled in Miami, where some of her family members lived. Maria remembered how fulfilling it was to assist her childhood teachers in her elementary school back in Cuba. In 2006, Maria began her studies in child care at Miami Dade Community College and, in 2009, she received her Florida Child Care Professional Credential Certificate. In 2007, The Growing Place gave her the opportunity she had been looking for: to care, nurture and teach young children in a positive environment. In her spare time, Maria enjoys spending time with her family, traveling and continuing to pursue her educational goals.
Livia Orban, Lead Teacher
Livia Orban is from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where she started her journey in Christian education. She holds a bachelor´s degree in physical education, and post-graduate degrees in both early childhood education and literacy, specializing in the reading and writing process. She has been working as a teacher since 2001, loves learning with her students and finds teaching a truly rewarding job. Livia joined The Growing Place community in January 2015 with enthusiasm and the commitment to make a difference in the children’s education and their daily development. In her free time, she enjoys outdoor activities, exercising, cooking, traveling, reading and spending time with family and friends.
Danielle Quintero, Lead Teacher
Danielle Quintero was born and raised in Miami, Florida, and earned her Bachelor's of Arts in International Relations from Boston University. She is currently pursuing a secondary degree in early childhood education and is very excited to have joined The Growing Place in 2015 as a Lead Teacher for the Walker's Classroom. In her spare time, Danielle loves to travel, yoga and performing improvisational comedy.
Elizabeth Rodriguez, Lead Teacher
Elizabeth Rodriguez was born and raised in Cuba and has lived in the United States since 1996. Elizabeth holds a degree in physical education from Cuba and - after moving to the United States - Elizabeth earned a Florida Child Care Professional Credential (FCCPC) in early childhood education (birth to five years of age). Her passion for children has led her in joining The Growing Place, where she has remained for the past 15 years. She loves to be a positive influence in children’s lives and help them as they go through important stepping-stones in their development. In her free time, Elizabeth enjoys watching movies and spending time with her friends and family.
Ginna M. Vargas Duran, Lead Teacher
Ginna M. Vargas-Duran is a current education student seeking a bachelor's degree in early childhood education, with a minor in special education. She was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia, and has lived in the United States since 2004. As an early childhood educator, Ginna enjoys helping and promoting children's learning through their interests in a natural environment. Ginna joined The Growing Place community in 2015 and feels eager about teaching and sharing experiences with children. Ginna enjoys cycling, reading, outdoor activities and spending time with family and friends.
Jennifer Bautista, Assistant Teacher
Jennifer Bautista was born and raised in Miami, Florida. She has a Latin ethic background of Cuban and Venezuelan. Jennifer has completed her associate degree in elementary education at Miami-Dade College and is currently completing her bachelors degree in early childhood education at Florida International University. She has worked as an after-school care teacher and substitute for approximately four years. She loves the creativity of working with students and figuring out the best way they can learn. She is very passionate about helping students growing in every way possible. Jennifer joined The Growing Place community in 2016 with a promise that she will be enthusiastic and determined to help the school teach students in a Christian matter. During her spare time, Jennifer enjoys traveling with family and friends, reading and dancing.
Gabriela Bryan, Assistant Teacher
Gabriela Bryan was born in Cuba, spent her early childhood in Peru, and moved to the United States in 1972. She holds a bachelor's degree from Georgetown University and a Professional Florida Teacher Certification in Prekindergarten/Primary Education (Age 3-Grade 3). She began her educational career as a Paraprofessional with gifted and bilingual students and has taught adult English classes. She joined The Growing Place professionally in 1993 as an assistant in the preschool, then spent several years as Lead Teacher in the preschool and first grade. She currently works as the Assistant in the Kindergarten class. Gabriela cherishes her work with the children of The Growing Place because it gives her an opportunity to guide students as they develop in their own unique way into the people that God has meant them to be. Gabriela enjoys spending her free time with family, listening to music, reading, and traveling.
Luz Caceres, Assistant Teacher
Luz Maria (Lucy) Caceres was born in Matanzas, Cuba, came to the United States in 1969 where she lived in New York for three years; and has been in Miami for the past 44 years. She is a graduate of Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High School. She pursued a career in retail until the birth of her first child when she took on the rewarding experience of being a mom. For the past 17 years, she has been a Girl Scout Troop Leader, Shake-A-Leg volunteer, and a Teacher Assistant. Her ability to interact and motivate children to learn, play and grown as individuals is her biggest attribute. She joined The Growing Place this year, in hopes of continuing her love for educating children. Lucy’s family motto is “Ohana," which means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten, as warmly depicted in the Disney movie "Lilo & Stich." Lucy enjoys camping, photography and crafting.
Andrea Cisneros, Assistant Teacher
Andrea Cisneros was born and raised in Miami, Florida. She is currently in the process of getting her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and plans to pursue her master’s degree the same exciting field. Andrea enjoys traveling, reading, and spending time with family and friends.
Begett Contreras, Assistant Teacher
Begett was born and raised in Mexico. She moved to South Florida in 1989, where after finishing school, she worked as a general manager for a consolidation company. While living in Fort Lauderdale, she met her husband and subsequently moved to Barcelona, Spain in 2002. During their time in Barcelona, Begett worked as a European flight attendant. Although she enjoyed traveling and being able to see the world, she had a feeling that there was something missing in her life. That’s when they decided to become parents. Begett has always loved children and said that if she could, she would have had six! They moved to Cancun, Mexico in 2008 and welcomed their second baby in 2009. In 2012, Begett and her family decided to move back to Florida. She has been a stay-at-home mom since. Here, she realized that her passion for helping others starts with small children. Begett became certified to work as a substitute teacher at The Growing Place and loved it so much that she will be joining our staff for the 2016 school year. In her free time, Begett loves to travel, go to the beach and spend time with her family.
“When you find your mission in life, pursue it. I followed my dreams and heart. I am a wealthy woman in every sense, every time I see a child smile because they accomplished something on their own”.
Erlin Cruz, Assistant Teacher
Erlin Cruz was born and raised in Miami, Florida. She holds an associate degree in psychology. She is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in elementary education K-6 with an ESOL endorsement and is excited to join The Growing Place in 2016. Coming from a big family, she has established a love and care for children. She discovered her love for children when being responsible for her nieces and nephews. Watching them grow is part of the reason why she’s passionate about working with children. Erlin’s hobbies include going out to the movies, kayaking and having brunch with her friends.
Emily Curtin, Assistant Teacher
Emily Curtin is a 1995 graduate of the University of Richmond, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Speech Communications. Emily joined The Growing Place in 2014. Prior to working at The Growing Place, Emily was the Loyalty Marketing Manager at Norwegian Cruise Line and the Director of Loyalty Programs for Sandals Resorts. She is a native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but now resides in Coral Gables with her husband and three boys.
Yadira Garcia, Assistant Teacher
Yadira Garcia was born and raised in Cuba and has lived in the United States since 2009. She is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in accounting at Florida international University. Yadira joined The Growing Place in 2010, where she loves working with children and enjoys seeing them learn and develop. In her free time, she enjoys going to the movies and traveling.
Judith Huaman, Assistant Teacher
Judith Huaman was born in Lima, Peru, and she came to Miami, Florida in 2002. She holds a bachelor’s degree in science, a Teacher Certification in mathematics for middle and high school, and an associate degree in early childhood education. She started working at The Growing Place Child Center as an Assistant Teacher in 2011. It was here when she discovered that her goal in life is helping guide and educate young the children, and help them become kind, giving, and productive adults as they grow up. Judith likes to read, listen to music and travel in her spare time.
Andrea Lages, Assistant Teacher
Andrea Lages was born and raised in Brazil. She studied geography in Brazil and holds an associate degree in early childhood development from Miami Dade College. Andrea is currently working on her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. The mere understanding that children develop cognitive, gross-motor skills as well as character, social-emotional growth and executive functioning is captivating to her. The potential to empower young children’s lives is an enormous responsibility and a profound joy that Andrea takes seriously. Andrea joined The Growing Place in December 2016 and is excited to be part of our team! In her free time, Andrea likes to travel, laugh with friends and specially to spend time with her husband and two children.
Monica Lazo, Assistant Teacher
Monica was born in Lima, Peru. She came to the United States in 2001 with her family. Monica has a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. Monica loves to teach because she enjoys guiding children to find their path in life and give them opportunities to explore their environment and develop skills to resolve any problems they might find along the way. Monica enjoys working at The Growing Place because of its Christian principles, and its productive work environment, that helps her to teach children to grow and follow the word of God. Monica believes each and every child has a potential to bring something unique and special to the world. In her free time, Monica likes to travel and spend time with her family.
Ana Lowe, Assistant Teacher
Ana Lowe was born in Cuba and raised in Miami. She is currently working on her bachelor's degree in early childhood education. Ultimately, Ana would like to become an administrator where she believes her qualities can contribute to the children’s success. Ana enjoys seeing the children grow socially and academically. For her, the ultimate reward is seeing a child put what they have learned into practice. She is committed to her profession and is passionate about educating young minds and sharing the love of God with them.
Nichelle Martinez, Assistant Teacher
Nichelle Martinez was born and raised in Miami Florida. She holds an associate degree in elementary education. She enjoys watching children grow throughout the school year and helping them reach their highest potential in their educational environments. She joined The Growing Place in 2014 as an Assistant Teacher in the toddler program. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family, going to Target, and doing anything crafty.
Hilda Morin, Assistant Teacher
Hilda Morin was born in Cuba, raised in New York and moved to Miami in 1976. She is married and has four adult children, four vibrant grandchildren, and two amazing dogs. Hilda holds a Child Development credential, a Directors credential, is certified in adult and pediatric first aid CPR/AED, Food and Safety Management, and has her license in real estate. Hilda has been working in early childhood education since 1985 in private pre-schools, after-school programs, and youth development organizations. Hilda also holds memberships in National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), Southern Early Childhood Association (SECA), and HighScope. In her free time, she enjoys spending quality time with her family, cooking, arts & crafts, music, reading and ice skating.
Melissa Pinto Martos, Assistant Teacher
Melissa Pinto Martos was born and raised in Miami, Florida. She holds an associate degree in education. As a new educator, Melissa loves to see the children’s progress and to be a part of this experience. Melissa joined The Growing Place in 2016. Melissa has a passion for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and is always curious to learn more about them.
Maria Jose Rendon, Assistant Teacher
Maria Jose Rendon was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador and she has lived in Miami for the past 14 years. She graduated from Florida International University in 2008 and started working in the field of early childhood education the following summer. Throughout these years, she has worked with different curriculums and teaching models such as Creative Curriculum, HighScope, and the Reggio Emilia and Constructivist Approaches to education. Maria Jose joined The Growing Place in 2014 as part of the PreK-4 team. She is committed to presenting children with daily opportunities that allow them to foster their own learning through creative thinking. She enjoys spending time with her family and practicing outdoor activities during her free time.
Beatriz Rodriguez, Assistant Teacher
Beatriz Rodriguez was born in Bogota, Colombia, where she worked in the banking industry for ten years. She has lived in Miami with her husband for over 30 years, raising their two daughters and working as a childcare professional. Her priority is to provide each child with love, safety and security. She enjoys working at The Growing Place because of the high quality of care and Christian education. Beatriz joined The Growing Place in 2009. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her family, reading, walking and bike riding.
Carmen Rodriguez, Assistant Teacher
Carmen Rodriguez was born in Havana, Cuba. She moved to the United States in 2002, where she lives with her two beautiful daughters. She has been working at The Growing Place since 2011. She loves working with children and watching them learn and grow. In her free time, she enjoys listening to music and dancing.
Laura Cristina Rodriguez, Assistant Teacher
Laura Cristina Rodriguez was born and raised in Miami, Florida. She holds a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. As an early childhood educator, Laura enjoys watching children grow and develop. She is very passionate and committed to providing children with the best educational experience possible. Laura joined The Growing Place community in 2015. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with family and friends, exercising, traveling and reading.
Paola Santiago, Assistant Teacher
Paola Santiago was brought up in Miami, Florida, and has lived here all her life. She graduated from Robert Morgan Educational Center’s Drama academy before starting Florida International University in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Paola is one of four siblings and loved helping her parents raise the youngest, her little sister. The most rewarding and fun part about working with children for Paola is watching them develop their personalities. She believes that guiding and seeing children become wholesome individuals is the most rewarding part of being a teacher’s assistant. Paola joined The Growing Place in 2016 and hopes to spread as much positive energy as possible! She loves watching cheesy romantic movies, hanging out with her friends and exploring nature!
Carolina Sirven, Assistant Teacher
Carolina Sirven was born and raised in Miami, Florida. She holds a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and is currently in the process of getting her master’s degree in speech pathology. As an early childhood educator, Carolina’s goal is to guarantee that all children are treated equally and that they are given many opportunities to learn. Carolina joined The Growing Place in 2012 with a promise to ensure that children learn, feel welcomed, accepted and respected within the classroom. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, staying active and spending time with family and friends.
Joanna Stollenmaier, Assistant Teacher
Joanna came from the land down under, the beautiful island of Tasmania, Australia. She moved to Miami in January 2016 with her husband, Colton. She loves working with children and has done so for over four years. She was a Pathfinder Master Guide Instructor back in Australia and she is certified in early childhood education and care. Working with children is the most rewarding job she has ever had; it is a ministry in itself to teach children God's amazing love for us. She started working at The Growing Place in August 2016 and feels blessed to be a part of such a wonderful community here. A few of her favorite things in life are family, the beach and traveling the world.
Grace Garcia, Art Teacher
Grace Garcia was born and raised in Miami Shores and now lives in the same neighborhood with her husband and two daughters. She holds a CDA and has some college background. She started as a preschool teacher and later became the art teacher at the elementary school where she worked. In total, she has 17 years of experience working with children. She enjoys teaching students about art and watching them create and seeing their creative expressions come alive. Outside the classroom, she enjoys going to the beach, traveling and spending time with her family.
Carisa Koury, Music Teacher
Carisa Wilson-Koury has called Miami home for the majority of her life. She attended the University of Miami earning a Bachelor of Music and the University of North Texas for graduate work in music performance. Throughout 25 years of private and school teaching experience, including as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Miami School of Music’s MusicTime program, Carisa has enjoyed sharing her love of music and God through musical and developmental instruction and seeking to meet the goals of each student and family. Carisa joined The Growing Place community in 2015. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family, writing and speaking on children’s education and within women’s ministries, kayaking, camping, and looking for beautiful sunrises and sunsets that magnify God’s artistry and glory.