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Au pair exchange programs a big help to working parents

Often, it's a win-win situation as the kids and the caregiver learn about each others' countries.

Published August 24, 2006

When Madonna Emoff's mother fell ill and could no longer care for her three children, she and her husband had to act quickly to find new help.

Like many Florida families, the Emoffs both work. Madonna is a store manager for Talbots, and Tom works as a mortgage broker. Both jobs require the couple to work long hours that often vary because of their customer-focused jobs.

After reuniting with a friend who works for an au pair exchange program, Cultural Care Au Pair, the Emoffs decided to try the unconventional child care option.

"We had to make a decision quick about how we'd be getting care," Madonna said.

The Emoffs' au pair, Anna Maria Bemmer, 18, is from Austria and will arrive on Friday. The family has been communicating with Bemmer through e-mail, sharing their hopes, their pictures and their stories.

Au pair programs, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of State's Exchange Visitor Program, give 18- to 26-year-old foreign men and women the opportunity to live in the United States for a year.

During their stay, they serve as a live-in child care provider and enroll in a postsecondary study program, often at a local community college.

Cultural Care Au Pair has placed au pairs in Pinellas County since 1995. There are 36 au pairs in the Tampa Bay area, said Sarah Buzzard, the organization's local child care coordinator for Pinellas County. Of those au pairs, fewer than 10 are living in Pinellas County.

Au pairs and families complete a thorough application and matching process to ensure the best situation for all parties, Buzzard said. Each au pair must have at least 200 hours of recent child care experience and speak English proficiently.

When the Emoffs were choosing their au pair, they sifted through many profiles, looking for someone well-educated, mature and from a large family.

"The big family was definitely something we needed to consider because we are all over the place," Madonna said. The Emoffs' daughters, Tori, 12, and Alex, 10, are involved in competitive ice hockey teams that travel almost every weekend. Their son, Thomas, 6, just began first grade and soon will be signed up for soccer.

"It's important for us to have our kids have a cultural experience instead of just a nanny or a babysitter," Tom said.

When organization representatives review families' applications, it is important to make sure the household will be a safe and welcoming place for the au pair.

"Ideally the family is looking not just for someone to care for their child but someone who they want to welcome into their family," said Keri Baugh, national conference and public relations coordinator for Cultural Care Au Pair.

Exchange organizations - 11 are recognized by the United States - must place a local child care coordinator within 60 miles of every au pair. This coordinator must visit the prospective family to review the household and get a feel for the family's personality and needs.

The au pairs must be given their own, private bedroom, and they cannot work more than 45 hours a week.

Au pairs are not in charge of cleaning up the entire house or cooking for all the family members, Baugh said. Their job is to help the parents by working with the children, not serving as a maid.

If conflicts arise, the local representative conducts a mediation meeting. But if there is no resolution, the professional will work to find another family for the au pair and a replacement for the family.

Claudia and Rick Bundschu have welcomed four au pairs, from Mexico, Costa Rica and Brazil, into their family since Claudia became pregnant with their youngest son, Ian, who will be 5 next month. As physicians, both Claudia and Rick work long hours and do not have enough free time to keep up with their kids' busy schedules.

The Gulfport family's current au pair, Loraine Dib, is from Brazil and has lived with the family since October 2005. But she will not be leaving anytime soon. Dib plans to renew her visa for another year, a recently added option to the program.

The Bundschus also have had two American live-in nannies. While there are advantages to having a native child care provider, Claudia said the au pairs provide more consistent care.

"What we found with local girls is they quit with short notice," she said.

The Bundschus' children - Vanessa, 12, Nikita, 8, and Ian - already have been exposed to foreign languages and cultures through Claudia's Brazilian roots.

But, the parents say, the cultural aspect of the program is still important for their family, and even more life-changing for the au pair.

"For them it's an excellent experience," Claudia said. "They learn so much."

[Last modified August 24, 2006, 07:07:39]

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