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The Richmond Times-Dispatch
Offering Lessons In Spanish Proves Beneficial; It Had Been A Foreign Language, But Family And Then Business Opportunities Made It Familiar
By Joan Tupponce, Special Correspondent
27 September 2004
If someone told Lisa Zajur 20 years ago she would become director of the Spanish Academy & Cultural Institute, she would have laughed.
Back then, the native Richmonder couldn't speak a word of Spanish. That was before she met her husband, Michel Zajur, who later founded the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and now serves as CEO and president of the organization.
The two met at a friend's wedding and were married in 1984, one year later. After marrying, Lisa Zajur was eager to immerse herself in the Hispanic culture.
"I would hear everyone in the family talking [Spanish] and I would ask my husband what they would mean," she said.
At the time, Zajur was teaching third grade at Clover Hill Elementary School and trying to learn Spanish in her spare time.
"I started learning a few words and then took a course at a community college during my second year of marriage," Zajur said. "The instructor rattled off words in Spanish, but I wasn't making the connection."
Frustrated, she began studying on her own and researching. She also began bringing Spanish words and phrases into her classroom. In 1987, the Zajurs founded the Spanish Academy & Cultural Institute and began producing cultural shows for children, introducing them to Hispanic cultures through language lessons, dance, arts and crafts, and food.
"We offered children's programs and our Spanish for Kids Cultural Show," Zajur said. "We still go into city of Richmond schools through the Parks and Recreation programs every Monday, and we work with the PTA-sponsored after-school programs in Chesterfield and Henrico."
Zajur left the Chesterfield school system to spend time with her infant daughter, Jada. As a result, Zajur decided to open a bilingual pre-school in her Salisbury home. She revamped her garage and started Family Child Care and Preschool in 1991, setting up the classroom like a professional classroom and incorporating Spanish into the curriculum.
"We had the best time," Zajur said. "We did our calendar, numbers and art activities in Spanish."
In 2000, Zajur expanded the Spanish Academy & Cultural Center by offering industry-specific classes using a curriculum, Awaken the Spanish Within, that she designed. A year later, she closed the preschool to focus on her new endeavor.
"I felt there was more of a need in the community for the classes," Zajur said. "Michel and I wanted to give back to the Spanish community that he grew up in. You have to embrace the culture. It's a different way of thinking. I believe life takes you on a journey and God was telling me to go this way."
The course, which sprang from Zajur's frustration with learning the language, was an instant success.
"We never advertised," Zajur said. "But after we had a class, it really took off. It was the perfect template."
The template incorporated Zajur's research on how the brain works in relation to learning languages.
"When you say words in different voice tones, your brain waves simultaneously line up for a whole-brain approach to learning," Zajur said. "You begin using the left and right sides of the brain."
As she listened to tapes, she decided on the tones she liked and incorporated them into an audio program. Today, she has a patent pending for her voice-tonality technology. "It's fun and it makes learning Spanish more interesting and enjoyable," she said.
Zajur began tailoring her instruction to meet the needs of various industries, incorporating music, games and role-playing into her classes. She hired Hispanic instructors from Mexico, Puerto Rico and Colombia and started using a team-teaching concept.
"It makes it more fun and interesting," she said. "I've got the Southern Spanish drawl going on and can help coach the participants along."
Zajur's first corporate client was Bank of America. Denise Ranallo, consumer marketing manager of Bank of America, has been working with Zajur for three years.
"Lisa is positive and energetic," Ranallo said. "She amazes me. She will tweak the curriculum to whatever your business needs are. We needed banking terminology, so she created a chapter on terminology."
Today, Zajur offers her course to businesses and individuals through the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the University of Richmond.
Bon Secours Richmond Health System began working with Zajur after conducting an assessment in conjunction with the Central Virginia Health Planning Association of the minority population.
"We were struck by the increasing number of Hispanics in the area," said Dougal Hewitt, senior vice president, Mission Services. "That assessment confirmed what we were seeing in the hospital. We wanted to meet the needs of our patients by providing our services in their language. We wanted to increase the number of staff who had basic Spanish."
Zajur provides Bon Secours with two teaching modules: beginning Spanish and medical terminology. Classes include employees from all levels of the organization.
"It's a hard group to teach," Hewitt said. "People are tired [at the end of the day]. But Lisa has a smile and personality that light up the room. The class got rave reviews."
Name: Lisa Zajur
Born: March 28, 1963, in Richmond
Education: bachelor's degree in elementary education, Virginia Commonwealth University, 1985
Family: husband Michel; children Jada, 14; Holly, 11; Austin, 9
Career path: St. Anthony's Preschool, assistant director, 1983- 85; Chesterfield County schoolteacher, 1985-91; Family Child Care and Preschool, director, 1991-2001; Spanish Academy & Cultural Institute, director, 2000-present
Other interests: traveling, kickboxing, karate, volunteer work