“One of the most rewarding aspects of this business is showing people how to use the tools they already have…and watching them broaden their cultural and global understanding.”
The conception of Elda Stanco Downey’s business all started over a bottle of wine. She was a Spanish Professor at Roanoke College but was on maternity leave with her second son around the summer of 2013. Stanco Downey had entertained the idea of quitting to build a language service for the community. She just had to prepare her husband for her decision. One evening after the children went to bed, Elda sat with her husband and sipping wine.
She explained to her husband a vision of a business she could build from the ground up: a Spanish language service that would provide anything from one-on-one tutoring to language and culture consulting for companies wanting to broaden their market. With the aid of a second bottle of wine, Elda’s husband mulled over her business proposal. Like many of Elda’s endeavors and community projects, he supported the foundation of Roanoke Spanish.
Roanoke Spanish incorporated on December 3, 2013, and now offers translation, interpreting, cultural training for the workplace, individual tutoring, as well as partnerships with local charities and non-profits such as the Virginia Latino Higher Education Network (VALHEN). The business rents out space through the Co-Lab at both the Grandin and Patrick Henry building locations.
“One of the most rewarding aspects of this business is showing people how to use the tools they already have…and watching them broaden their cultural and global understanding,” Elda says.
Elda’s cultural and global understanding stems from her upbringing. She was born in Caracas, Venezuela, to a racially diverse family. Elda attributes her work ethic, business practices and motivation to her parents.
Elda says her parents always pushed her to excel. From early on she knew she would come to the United States to get her education just as her older siblings had. She credits her family for much of her drive, love of education and knack for business.
“My father is a business man. Throughout my childhood, he always had a few business ventures on the side but still found the time to uphold his civic duty,” says Elda. “And I think that’s where I learned it from.” Following her father’s example, Elda is now on the local Board of Directors of the Chamber of Commerce.
“I love what I do. When I have the freedom to dictate what I do, it no longer feels like work,” she says. “I have an incredible support system, a phenomenal husband.”
Elda left Venezuela to attend the University of Chicago to study psychology and Spanish literature. She later attended Brown University where she earned a Masters and PhD in Spanish literature. She still keeps in contact with her Hispanic studies professor, Julio Ortega from Brown who has served as a mentor.
“There is something unique about Elda and her capacity to interact with students
in a one-to-one relation. That is, she believes in her students, and communicates the rare talent of teaching with gusto,” Ortega says. “She is lady with command. I believe she has a lot to give and much space to grow as a natural leader.”
Elda moved to Roanoke in 2004 where she joined Hollins University. In 2010, she accepted a job teaching at Roanoke College, where she met a fellow Venezuelan, Iris Myers. Myers is a professor of Spanish and the director of the Language Resource Center.
At Roanoke College, Myers and Stanco Downey go beyond the Roanoke Spanish curriculum to learn about their students and use real examples from the students’ lives and inside jokes to make the content relatable. The staff is not afraid to laugh with the students and to build strong connections with them.
Christine Lockheart Poarch is a local attorney and mother who uses Roanoke Spanish’s translation services at Poarch Law.
“The best quality about Elda is her humility and her ability to flexibly adapt to challenges and different personality types and learning styles and still deliver really transforming language education. You can't put a price on that when you're trying to tell a story through an interpreter or hoping that the heart of what your client has written comes across on the page,” Poarch says. “The same goes for the highly technical publications and training resources some of our clients need and that we use Roanoke Spanish to provide. Roanoke Spanish pays attention to the nuance of tiny cultural linguistic differences that really matter in huge ways for our clients.”
Poarch’s three young daughters also utilize Roanoke Spanish. “I couldn't have picked a better partner for that education for my kids than Roanoke Spanish. She's doing way more than vocabulary or verb conjugation. She's changing the way their brains process language. She makes sense out of something that can be very intimidating,” she adds. “Iris has a natural warmth that my children, who take Spanish weekly from either Elda or Iris, immediately responded to when they met her.”
Additionally, Elda teaches Spanish courses at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute and she is a board member for both Local Colors and United Way. Every Friday she leads a Spanish circle for those wanting to practice their fluency. Last June, she gave the presentation, “How I Got the Hole in My Shoe” for Ted Talks in Richmond, which challenges the idiom of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and, instead, suggests walking alongside someone in your own shoes.
Elda continues to demonstrate her commitment to serving the community through her involvement in VALHEN. She is a consulting staff member and operations director for VALHEN, a non-profit organization that helps to bridge gaps between Latino high school students and higher education. In addition to networking and improving access to resources for students, she takes is upon herself to push Latino students out of their comfort zone. “I try to give them opportunities to do things they’ve never done before,” Elda says. “Like trying new foods or experiencing different culture. Like last winter, I took them to see ‘The Nutcracker.’"
Elda recently took the local VALHEN chapter of students out to a sushi lunch to commemorate the end of the school year. At the end of the meal, she gave the students an exercise to do for an upcoming conference. “Write down how you define community. What builds community? What tears it down? What makes up part of your community?” Then she asked each student to read what he or she had written (some in Spanish, some in English).
“Family is an important part of community. I face different challenges everyday but I can always come home to my family at the end of the day and they are there for me,” one student read aloud. Other students opened up about experiencing racism in the classroom. “We cannot have a solid community with any kind of discrimination. I should not be treated differently because I was not born here.”
Rising Patrick Henry High School junior Tania Garcia Jimenez, considers the VALHEN community family. “I can express myself here and be myself [with Dr. Elda and the other students] which I haven’t always been able to do,” she says. “I want a future in law, politics, civics or history, and this group is helping to make that happen.”
When the server came back to the table with the check, she passed out fortune cookies. The students each opened their cookie to share their respective fortunes, but one particular fortune stuck out to Elda: “Good character is the true aim of education.”
“If I can help an individual anchor themselves in the global community, I know I’ve done my job,” Elda says. “Seeing language empower my students and clients is what motivates me.”