Au pairs do more than just child care

By: Tinka Davi, Granite Bay View Correspondent
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When Steve and Judy Holt went looking for child care for their five youngsters, they found a special service. Instead of taking them to daycare or hiring a nanny, they opted for an au pair, Kelly Van Der Merwe, from South Africa.

The Granite Bay family’s au pair is from a service, AuPairCare, which began in 1989. Locally, it’s under the supervision of Leslie Marks, area director.

Au pair is a French term meaning “on a par” or “equal to” which indicates that the relationship is intended to be one of equals, that the au pair becomes a family member rather than a domestic servant, according to the Web site.

The au pairs are in-home child care providers from a foreign country who work for a host family such as the Holts, whose children range from 2 to 5 years.

AuPairCare works with people from 40 countries that have overseas agencies to recruit and profile applicants. Au pairs in this area are from Germany, Brazil, Czech Republic, Thailand, Denmark, France, Columbia, Mexico Serbia, Japan and China.

The au pair has the opportunity to learn English, while the hosts may choose an au pair based on the family’s heritage or a language they want their youngsters to learn.

To become an au pair, applicants must be between 18 and 26 years of age, have child-care experience, speak English and be a high school graduate. Most importantly, applicants for au pair jobs must love children and enjoy spending time with them.

“I don’t know why anyone would want to come here and watch children for 45 hours a week if they didn’t like children,” Marks said.

The program is under the direction of the U.S. State Department, which requires au pairs to have a J-l visa.

When someone applies, AuPairCare does background checks, medical screenings and checks references, Marks said.

When they arrive in the U.S., au pairs receive three days of intensive training in New York and New Jersey. They attend CPR and first aid classes and learn about 911, which may be different in their countries.

“They’re also taught American street smarts,” Marks said.

Those who will be caring for infants go to another day of specialized classes for infants — CPR, body massage, bathing and sign language.

Au pairs are screened by advisors in the corporate office in San Francisco and by matching experts. As an area director, Marks also screens applicants.

“We put names in a database and match interests, instead of the family going through 500 names. (Our service) is not as time consuming,” Marks said.

“We help families find au pairs that fit their needs,” she said. “We want the au pair to be a family member.”

An au pair may help with preparing lunches, driving a child to and from school, to music lessons and recitals. Another may be chosen for an interest in sports if the child is in a youth league or on a swim team.

“Kelly enjoys teaching the kids some Afrikaans, as well as the culture and traditions of South Africa,” Marks said.

Au pairs are also trained to work with special needs children who may have Down’s syndrome, autism or be completely disabled.

“Anything children may have, we have au pairs who are experienced. The au pair is an extra person in the home to help families,” Marks said.

The Holts like having another set of hands in the house.

“This allows us to have more quality time together as a family,” said Judy Holt. “Kelly enjoys the kids and feels it’s not a job but the responsibility as a family member.”

Au pairs typically stay with one family for one year, but their visa may allow them to extend their time for six, nine or 12 months, and they can either stay with the same family or work for another.

“Most au pairs choose to stay another year and families like that option. It’s easier on the kids,” Marks said.

State Department regulations say that the au pair must have a private bedroom in the home and cannot work more than 45 hours a week, no more than 10 hours a day, and must get 1 1/2 days off a week and one weekend off a month.

They are paid $7.50 an hour.

“That’s $350 a week no matter how many children are in the family,” Marks said.

“They are only allowed to do things like clean the child’s bedroom and bathroom. They are not housekeepers,” Marks said. “They can do anything that is child-care related, like take youngsters to the park, help them clean up toys and take them to school.”

That may mean they work a split shift, with time off during the school day.

“Their free time is a great time for the au pair to take a course,” Marks said.

The Department of State requires them to get six credits at a post-secondary university or college. In this area, they attend Sierra College, Folsom Lake, William Jessup, American River or UC Davis.

Au pairs can take any course including American history, English as a second language, photography or other classes.

“The family helps pay up to $500 for education; the au pair is responsible for the rest of the expenses,” Marks said.

As area director, Marks helps au pairs if they become ill or have problems. She also helps them make friends. The program requires her to host a monthly event for area au pairs. She’s taken them to “Build-A-Bear” to make gifts for the Make a Wish Foundation, they’ve cleaned up the American River at Discovery Park and she hosted a holiday party in her home where the au pairs brought a food item typical of their country.

She also is required to talk to each au pair and their host family once a month to answer questions, and make sure they’re following the rules. If there is a problem, she may find a better placement with another family.

“I wish I’d known about this program when my kids were little,” Marks said, indicating they could learn so much about cultural diversity.

“I am very passionate about this job and just want people to know what a great program this is for families and their children.”