From staff reports
Au pairs are live-in child caregivers from countries all over the world who stay with families in the U.S. for up to two years. They are provided by one of 12 agencies designated by the U.S. State Department, and the agency with the largest presence in the Charlotte region is California-based AuPairCare.
AuPairCare representatives supervise about 50 au pairs hosted by Charlotte families, and they organize regular gatherings for the au pairs to socialize. Recently, au pairs and organizers gathered at Build-A-Bear Workshop at Concord Mills to create bears to give to Birthday Blessings, a local charity that hosts birthday parties for homeless children. Area directors Beth Gigiotti and Laura True explained the basics of the program, and some local au pairs shared their experiences:
Q. How does the au pair system work? Gigiotti: It's an exchange program, and families match with au pairs from all over Europe, South America, South Africa, Thailand, Korea (and more). Au pairs live with the families for a year, and while they live with them they also take classes. The host family is responsible for paying $500 toward that education over one year. The au pairs take either six college credits or 60 hours. The majority of the au pairs come over and take English (classes) because they want to better their English. They're not accepted into the program unless they can communicate in English. They take tests before they leave their country. You can have a 6, 9 or 12-month extension. A lot of families will choose to do that. During their extension, (au pairs) are required to fulfill another educational requirement.
Q. What do the AuPairCare directors do in Charlotte? True: We organize events to get them together monthly as a social entity. Girls going through homesickness have the opportunity to meet other girls who are in the same situation as them. We also interview the host families (to screen them for the au pairs). Gigiotti: When they arrive, we do an orientation for the au pairs, tell them how to sign up for classes, how to get their driver's license, get a social security card, get them all the information they need.
Q. What's the cost? Gigiotti: The family pays wages (minimum wage) and it's approximately $13-$14,000 per year. The infant specialized program costs more. The host family is not required to pay taxes, but the au pair is required to. They arrive with health insurance.
Q. What are the au pair's work hours? True: She normally works up to 45 hours a week. At least once a month she has a whole weekend to herself, and she has at least one day and a half off a week. (She works) no more than 10 hours a day.
Q. Is the host family required to provide the au pair with transportation? True: Some of the host families do provide their au pairs with a car and they're on their insurance plan, and sometimes they'll find other au pairs they'll get rides from. Ultimately it's the responsibility of the host family to make sure they get to their classes. The girls do have driving experience. They come here with an international license, but in the state of North Carolina, they are required to get a license.
Q. What happens if it doesn't work out? Gigiotti: It happens. There could be a personality conflict. If it's before six months, we will replace that au pair at no fee to you. We have a list of au pairs who need a rematch. They're called our in-country au pairs. Families can go in and choose someone who's in the country.
Q. What types of families have au pairs? True: Usually (they have) multiple children. We have some families with five children. But then when it comes to the infant specialized program, we get working parents that have an infant. We have single mom and single dad situations as well. When you have two children in day care, au pair actually ends up being (less cost).
Q. What kind of vetting can the host family do? Gigiotti: Once you sign up for the program, we go out and do the host family interview. Then, you're in what's called our (online) family room (at www.aupaircare.com). All our au pairs are nonsmokers now. They all have to be able to drive. Say you want a certain country, or a certain age. You can go in and say 'I want someone over 21, from Brazil, and who has under (age) 2 experience,' and different people with that profile will pop up. Then you choose who you want to interview. You will have them in your family room for two days to interview. It will show you pictures, it gives you contact information. You can call them. We recommend that you call them at least two times. I always tell the host families to ask open-ended questions. It's important, especially when you have infants, you want someone who's very proficient in English.
Q. Do some teach their language to the children? Gigiotti: Absolutely. I have some host families who only want Spanish speakers. I have a host family who only wants Germans because their children go to Smith Language Academy and they're learning German.
Au pair experiences:
Leanne Farnham, 23, here 11 months from South Africa, caring for two children in Concord, ages 5 and 6: "I wanted to see America. I finished my degree. I studied teaching so I thought (being an au pair) was close to what I've studied. I've gotten very attached to America and my friends here. Always an immediate talking point is 'Where's your accent, where are you from?' The best part is getting to know a new family, experiencing something new. The worst part, I guess, is missing home. You come out here on your own, so it's kind of scary. I'm really lucky. I came and there was this beautiful house and my first impression was wow, it's like Wisteria Lane on 'Desperate Housewives.'"
Rieke Johansen from Germany, here six months in Matthews, caring for three girls ages 6, 7 and 10: "I like it a lot, I like the language and people. I miss Germany, and the food and stuff. When you go shopping, it's really cheap here compared to Germany. My (host) mom is a stay-at-home mom. She can't drive (due to eyesight and hearing issues). So I do the driving. I am really lucky with my family. They are really nice. We're traveling a lot, to Ohio, and the beach. I think it's a good experience for the kids when they have girls from other countries (caring for them)."
Doreen Wichmann, 20, from Germany, here 10 months in Charlotte after starting with a family from New Jersey and being reassigned after six weeks. Cares for three youths ages 12, 14 and 16: "I was looking forward to coming to Charlotte. We decided (to change host families) after two weeks, and I changed after six weeks. The encounters with people from all over the world are what I really like. The experiences in this country are a lot different from Germany. I've made lasting friendships. There's a lot of time to travel. I have weekends off so I can travel a lot."
Jorge Soria (male), 23, from Argentina, here nine months caring for a 2-year-old boy in Waxhaw: "I am studying to be a teacher in Argentina. The idea interested me because I wanted to learn more English. It's a good way to get to know a family. I feel like a member of the family. Every holiday, I'm always with them. They also give me the free time that I need. They are teaching me the language. They're very patient with me. They said they wanted a male au pair because it would be a little more easygoing than a woman for them. The child is a boy so they don't have a problem with (hiring a male caregiver). It's a nice experience for (families) if they are open to a new member of the family - not just a nanny - and if they are open to a new cultural experience."