Perhaps it’s because they have young children. Maybe it’s due to the fact that they had so much fun growing up. Or it could be that they just love being around kids.
Then, again, it’s likely to be a combination of factors that have led Eleni Graciano and Thekla Manoloudis to devote themselves to Raising Astoria, the children’s educational center and play space they bought a little more than two years ago.
Eleni and Thekla, who are sisters, never dreamed that they would own a business or that they would be working together.
They are 10 years apart – Eleni is the older – so during they youth, their paths intersected only because they made a great effort to spend time together.
“Eleni took care of me,” Thekla says. “She was my superhero.”
Thekla, adds Eleni, “was like my dolly.”
The sisters, who kiss each other on each cheek when they meet, are from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is where their immigrant parents settled when they left Thessaloniki, Greece.
Given their closeness, it’s not surprising that they graduated from the same college – American University in Washington, D.C. — and earned the same degree– a bachelor’s in international relations.
“We never used our degrees,” Eleni says. “We like to joke that at Raising Astoria, we do relations and there are international people who come here.”
Eleni got a job in Bethesda, Maryland as a sales manager for an internet security company, and Thekla eventually became her roommate, commuting to classes and then to a series of jobs in nonprofits.
Eleni fell in love with a co-worker, and Thekla became enamored of his best friend.
“Our husbands are from Queens and went to high school together,” Thekla says. “They were always hanging out together.”
Soon, adds Eleni, all four were hanging out together.
Eleni got married first, but Thekla was the first to move to New York City.
“We came home from her wedding, which was in 2008 in Thessaloniki, and we packed up and left,” Thekla says. “I had always dreamed of living here.”
Eleni continued to work until shortly before the birth of her first child, Eva, who is now 9.
“I was laid off when I was five months pregnant,” she says. “My husband, who still worked there, was out of the country on a business trip. He was so upset that he resigned about a month later.”
Eleni became a stay-at-home mom; her second child, Lily, is 7.
In 2014, the family followed Thekla to Astoria when Eleni’s husband got a job in the city.
Thekla, meanwhile, earned a master’s degree in public administration from Baruch College while she held down a full-time job.
She pulls her wedding band off her finger and examines the inscription. She got married – yes, it was to her sister’s husband’s best friend – and moved to Astoria in the same year, 2012.
Her children are young – Angelos is 3, and Aris just celebrated his first birthday.
In 2016, the sisters were out of the work force and looking for something exciting to do.
“We were on a beach in Greece when we saw the email newsletter saying Raising Astoria was for sale,” Thekla says. “I had been staying home with the baby for a year, and I was feeling a little lonely and dull. And Eleni wanted to get back to work.”
They had each taken their children to classes at Raising Astoria.
It was Thekla’s idea to buy it together.
At the end of December 2016, they became the new owners.
“This is like our third child,” Thekla says. “We feel a responsibility to be here.”
“We’re very hands-on,” Eleni adds.
The sisters split the shifts at Raising Astoria, which offers everything from cooking and Spanish-language classes to CPR and baby/toddler sing-alongs.
“We are not doing this for a salary,” Eleni says. “In fact, we’ve never had a paycheck yet.”
Fortunately, the sisters don’t measure their progress in dollars and cents. Instead, they chart the achievements of their cute little charges.
“We’ve been in business long enough now that the 2-month-old babies are toddlers,” Thekla says.
Eleni adds, “It’s like watching our own kids grow.”
Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 15, 2019. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com, @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling