Meet The Team
M.Ed, LCSW, BCBA, DT
Founder & Chief Executive Officer
Lorell Marin founded LEEP Forward in 2001 out of her desire to create innovative and inclusive learning environments for all children. She expanded this vision in 2018 to include a school focusing on Diverse Learners. Lorell holds a Masters in both Social Work, Teaching, specializing in Special Education and a host of other credentials that may just complete the alphabet! She believes in offering a choice by listening to the child's voice (she knows kids communicate in a variety of ways so being a detective and honing your observation skills is helpful).
Michaja Johnson, M.S. OTR/L
Executive Clinical Director
Michaja is a pure Michigan native who received her masters degree in Occupational Therapy from Western Michigan University. She is driven by a passion for her work with parents and children who are affected by sensory processing challenges. The last ten years she has spent working with kids with developmental differences using a DIR® Floortime approach. As the Director of Related Services and the Occupational Therapy Department she seeks to have kids thrive where they are and provide therapy in unique ways and changing settings to support progress in all areas of life.
Michaja’s journey to her landing spot in Chicago has been quite the adventure! Her time away from LEEP is spent with her husband and two sons looking for the perfect coffee or working on her other projects; including writing and continuing families non-profit.
Brittany Kowalik, M.S. , R.B.T.
Program Director & Clinical Coordinator
Before coming to Chicago in 2012, Brittany was raised near Cleveland, Ohio and later moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Brittany earned her undergraduate degree in Psychology from Miami University of Ohio and her Master’s degree in Applied Developmental Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh. Brittany has experience working with children of all ages with a wide variety of needs and abilities. Brittany is a behavioral and developmentally focused therapist with a demonstrated history of working in variety of settings including pediatric clinics, preschools, and hospital & health care industries, and is a Registered Behavior Technician (RBT).
She loves continuing education and has been trained across a variety of approaches including Motivational Interviewing, Applied Behavior Analysis, Social Thinking, Collaborative and Proactive Solutions, Sensory Enrichment Therapy, and thanks to LEEP, the DIR/Floortime approach! Brittany has worked as a Lead Therapist in the LEEP Forward pediatric clinic in the preschool, transitional kindergarten, and the Quantum LEEP program. Her time away from LEEP is spent balancing her family life with her husband and daughter!
Chief Operating Officer
Ashley is a Chicagoland native with a passion for executing visions and supporting professionals making an impact in their field. Ashley has served as the Director of Marketing and External Affairs and Chief Strategy Officer at LEEP Forward and Quantum LEEP Academy.
Prior to joining LEEP , Ashley worked at NBC Universal and 20th Century Fox gaining experience in communications, marketing strategy, project management and sales execution across various types of industries including healthcare, finance, media and entertainment, from start-ups to multi-billion dollar corporations. She is a graduate of Western Michigan University with a Bachelor’s Degree in communications.
In her spare time, you can find her trying to solve a rubix cube, checking off one of the many items on her google spreadsheet bucket list, volunteering with Open Heart Magic as a children's hospital magician, or around town attempting improv & stand-up comedy.
Director of Insurance and Billing
Elena is the LEEP Forward Medical Insurance Advisor, Communications & Office Manager, helping families navigate through insurance benefits as swiftly and painlessly as possible. Born in Chicago, she is a graduate of DePaul University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Commerce. Elena brings a strong sense of compassion through her own experiences with helping her own beautiful son get the coverage he needs. In her free time she enjoys spending time with her family and making her son laugh. If you have any questions regarding medical insurance just ask for Elena or also commonly referred around the office to as “Diego’s Mom”.
Dana Hutchins, M.S., D.T.
Quantum LEEP Academy Head of School & Program Director
Dana is a credentialed Developmental Therapist and has been a Lead Therapist at LEEP Forward since 2013 and has also worked as the Transition Coordinator. Dana received her professional DIR-FCD Model certificate in Emotional, Social, and Cognitive Development through the Profectum Foundation. She implements the DIR® Floortime model in the therapeutic preschool groups. Dana received her undergraduate degree in ElementaryEducation from the University of Wisconsin and taught in the public schools in Aiken, South Carolina. Dana returned to Chicago and graduated from The Erikson Institute with a Master’s in Science with a focus in working with children with special needs.
Dana is a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and in her free time loves to explore the culinary world of Chicago with her husband, Harley.
Tyler Choate, M.S., CCC-SLP
Director of Speech-Language Pathology & Clinical Education
Tyler specializes in the assessment and treatment of infants, toddlers, & school-age children who have diverse needs in communication, language, and speech. He believes in relationship-based approaches that embrace individual differences to help children relate, communicate, and think in complex ways. At his core, Tyler is a developmentalist, working with children and families to hone their strengths and adapt to challenges. As a speech-language pathologist, Tyler’s mission is to help children create meaning around their lives and share that meaning in the context of healthy, attuned relationships.
Currently, the bulk of his clinical practice focuses on using the DIR® Floortime model with children and families impacted by a range of neurodevelopmental differences. Tyler embraces transdisciplinary models and has a breadth of experience working with other disciplines. His therapeutic style is heavily informed by body-based work and the field of mental health. Additionally, Tyler has years of experience implementing meaning-based approaches to literacy, story telling, and narrative thinking. He uses a whole-language perspective to increase foundational capacities for reading and writing and often speaks to parents and educators about the pitfalls of phonics-based reading programs. In addition to his clinical work, Tyler is LEEP’s director of clinical education. In this role he provides coaching, training, and supervision for our staff.
In 2016, Tyler completed a two year training to become a DIR®/Floortime Fellow through the Profectum Academywhere he deepened his understanding of child development and was mentored by DIR® experts. Tyler is also a certified Interactive Metronome provider with specialized training in pediatrics. And he is currently enrolled in a post-graduate certificate program in Infant Mental Health through the Erikson Institute in Chicago.
Tyler is a native of Acadiana, the southwestern region of Louisiana. He attended the University of Louisiana at Lafayette where he obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in speech-language pathology. In his spare time, he enjoys exploring Chicago, working with clay, and volunteering with local and national affiliates of The Trevor Project.
Michaela Dalal, MA, BCBA
Michaela was born and raised in New Jersey and received her undergraduate degree in History from Rowan University. In 2012 she went to India and volunteered teaching English; while there she met her husband and lived in India for another 2 years tutoring in English language. She moved back to the U.S. and began working closely with the autistic community and those with developmental and neurological disabilities; finding her passion for helping all children reach their full potential. Michaela got her M.A. in Applied Behavior Analysis with an emphasis in Autism from Ball State University and became a Board-Certified Behavior Analysis in 2018. She has worked with adolescents and young adults in various settings and enjoys a play-based, positive approach to behavioral therapy.
Michaela and her husband moved to Chicago in the summer of 2019 to be closer to family and have enjoyed exploring their new home. In her free time, she likes spending time with her dog Mila, drinking coffee, and traveling.
Lindsey Adams, M.S. OTR/L
Lindsey grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago and received her Master's degree in Occupational Therapy from Midwestern University in Downers Grove, IL. Lindsey also has a Bachelors of Social Work (BSW), which she received from Indiana University, Bloomington. Much of Lindsey’s clinical and employment experiences involve working with children, including working for Ray Graham Association as the Activities Coordinator for their camp for children and adolescents with disabilities. Her demonstrated passion is to provide services to promote and support participation in everyday activities across multiple environments. She finds joy in seeing every child flourish and grow to their greatest potential.
In her spare time, Lindsey loves reading, doing puzzles running along the lake, and spending time with family and friends!
Tish Graf, M.S. OTR/L
Tish Graf is a Chicagoland native who has dual master’s degrees: one from Western Michigan University in occupational therapy and the other from Rush University (Chicago, IL) in audiology. In addition, Tish has a Bachelor of Arts degree in education from the University of Michigan. She was drawn to LEEP Forward due to the unique opportunity it created to provide occupational therapy services in an environment that embraced the DIR® Floortime approach, and is honored to be a part of the LEEP team.
In addition to her passion for watching the children and families she works with achieve success, Tish also owns American Saddlebred horses, is a certified yoga instructor, and parent to a daughter who fills her heart with joy each and every day.
Leigh Makely, M.S. OTR/L
Senior Occupational Therapist
Leigh grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, however moved to San Diego with her family in high school. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Therapeutic Studies and Occupational Therapy in a 5-year accelerated program at Boston University. While in college, Leigh was a member of the Boston University Synchronized Skating team and taught ice skating lessons in Cambridge, MA for children with physical disabilities. She spent a summer working abroad at a school in Australia and gained experience working with children at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston.
After earning her Master’s degree, Leigh moved back to Chicago for her clinical fieldwork rotations at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and at NorthShore University’s pediatric outpatient clinic in Skokie. Though pediatrics was her original passion, Leigh wanted to gain experience working with a variety of populations and has been working as an occupational therapist at Presence Saint Joseph Hospital and at The Clare skilled nursing facility in the Gold Coast for the past few years.
Leigh has decided the time is right to return to her original passion for working with children and families and is excited to implement the DIR® Floortime approach and bring her extensive knowledge of sensory processing challenges to the LEEP Forward team!
Emily Witham M.S., CF-SLP
Speech Language Pathologist
Emily grew up in a small, beach town in West Michigan called North Muskegon. She received her Bachelor’s of Science in Speech-Language Pathology with a minor in Biology from Marquette University. After graduating, she moved to Madrid, Spain to teach English for grades 1-6, where she enjoyed having the opportunity to work with native Spanish speakers and immersing herself in new cultures. She later moved to Chicago and obtained her Masters degree in Speech-Language Pathology from Midwestern University in Downers Grove. Emily has always known her passion is working with children and her areas of experience include working with a variety of speech and language disorders such as apraxia of speech, articulation and phonological disorders, and language disorders/delays. She additionally has experience working with children with developmental delays and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) using social thinking concepts as well as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). She is passionate about pediatric feeding and is currently obtaining her certification as a Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC).
She believes in an interdisciplinary approach to care, working closely with the child’s team and family to support them in all of their areas of need. Emily believes that children’s cognitive and linguistic development is enriched through play, which is what drew her to LEEP Forward and their DIR® Floortime approach. She is so excited to be a part of this wonderful and talented team!
Emily grew up hiking, biking, snowboarding, water-skiing and wakeboarding, anything outdoors you name it! In her free time, she enjoys being with her friends and family, running along the lakeshore, and practicing yoga.
Laura Zimmerman, MS DT CEIM
Laura was born and raised in the western suburbs of Chicago. Laura attended the University of
Kansas, earning her Bachelors degree in Psychology. She went on to earn her Master’s of
Science degree in child development with a specialization in infancy from Erikson Institute in
Chicago. Laura has worked in a variety of settings with children of varying needs and abilities.
Laura is also a Certified Educator of Infant Massage, believing in the importance of massage to
support bonding, attachment, and development.
Laura strongly believes in the foundation of relationships as a basis for using play-based therapy
methods, to support children in reaching their highest potential, while focusing on the whole
child approach to further development.
In her free time, Laura enjoys traveling and taking advantage of all the fun things to do in the
city with her husband and their Labrador, Millie.
Olivia Palutsis R.B.T.
Olivia is a Chicagoland native born and raised in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Speech Pathology and Audiology with a minor in Psychology from Marquette University located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Upon graduation, Olivia entered into the beautiful world of LEEP Forward. Through play, Olivia has learned from other professionals to tailor her approach to best fit each child and their unique style of learning. She is passionate about incorporating concepts of sensory regulation and school readiness skills into play while building fun and positive relationships into her daily practice.
Her favorite part about working at LEEP Forward is the collaborative and inclusive environment that she gets to engage in each day. In June 2017, Olivia became certified as a Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) and will be starting the M.Ed program in Special Education at the University of Illinois in Fall 2020. In her spare time, Olivia enjoys brunching at any of Chicago’s beautiful restaurants, spending time with friends and family, and enjoying the outdoors.
Brittiny is a Georgia native who enjoys helping any and everyone! Prior to joining the Leep team (and relocating to Chicago), Brittiny worked in development for Tennessees first all girls charter school. She believes that children are our future and we must do anything that we can to insure that they're well prepared for the world. In her spare time, you can find Brittiny buried in a book, an antique shop, fishing with her dad, or planning her next vacation!
Heather Abbott, R.B.T.
Heather grew up in Garland, Texas. She graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre Performance. After graduating, Heather moved to Chicago, IL to study improvisation. She has completed programs at Second City, iO, and Chicago Improv Den.
During undergrad, Heather spent her summers working with the non-profit Junior Players as an Artistic Instructor for their Discover Theatre camps. These camps encourage intellectual growth, mental well-being and the development of life skills through participation in the dramatic arts. Through her work with Junior Players, Heather developed a passion for working with children. Then, while studying abroad in England, Heather took a six-week course focusing on leading inclusive movement workshops for children with developmental differences. Heather is excited to join the Leep Forward team and eager to develop her skills as an Assistant Clinician.
In her free time, Heather performs improv around Chicago as well as writing, producing, and acting in independent film.
Madison Cramer, R.B.T.
Senior Assistant Clinician - RBT
Madison is a Chicagoland native, born and raised north of the city in Evanston. She attended University of Oregon and DePaul University to obtain her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and Human Development. Before graduating, Madison gained experience with young kiddos at a local preschool, spending time and continuing to learn about cognitive development for children from the ages of 3 months old to 5 years old. After graduation, Madison found her way to LEEP Forward and learned more about the importance of play in learning and teaching. Soon after, she became passionate about integrating these concepts into building foundations for strong relationships with the kiddos she works with. Madison obtained her Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) certification and will begin her Masters of Social Work program specializing in Children and Family at Loyola in the Fall.
In her spare time, Madison indulges in books, rollerblading by the lakefront, spending time outside and exploring, as well as spending time with her friends, family, and her Australian Shepherd.
Nick Rizza, R.B.T
Senior Floating Facilitor
Nick was born in the northwest suburbs of Chicago with three brothers. Nick received his BA at the University of Illinois-Chicago and began volunteering at LEEP Forward in the summer of 2013. He fell in love with the staff and kiddos.
Nick loves working with these children and continues to grow with LEEP!
Kate Sharp, R.B.T.
Assistant Clinician RBT
Kate is originally from Minneapolis, MN. She moved to Chicago in August, 2011. She received her bachelor's degree in psychology with a minor in anthropology from Northeastern Illinois University. While there, she discovered a passion for child development and providing support to families. She is currently pursuing her masters degree in child development at the Erikson Institute. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling, cooking, painting, and scrapbooking.