An adventure in child care

Au pairs who travel thousands of miles to improve their English and spend time in America bring their traditions to the children they look after.

April 10, 2005|By Christina Hernandez | Christina Hernandez,SUN STAFF

Katarzyna "Kate" Gil, Sitting at the kitchen table of her Abingdon home of the past 14 months, Katarzyna "Kate" Gil bounces 3-year-old Caren Grez on her lap and reflects on her experience as an au pair.

"It's not like a regular job at the office," she said. "You start feeling something. Day after day, you feel more in common. I really love them like my own kids."

The 25-year-old from Poland spends her days looking after Caren and her 5-year-old brother, Evan, when he returns from school. During the day, Gil and Caren visit friends, swim at the local gym, read books, do chores and play.

"We love to sing and dance," Gil said, as Caren kissed her face and smiled. "There is not enough time for us."

Gil ventured to the United States a year and a half ago to work as a Cultural Care Au Pair, an English-speaking 18- to 26-year-old high school graduate from another country who lives with a family in the United States on a one-year visa to provide child care. Gil is responsible for caring for Caren and Evan up to 45 hours per week.

Carol Johnson, the program's local child care coordinator for Harford County, said she has had four au pairs for her children. The last was with Cultural Care Au Pair.

"It was the next best thing to having me with [my children]," she said.

As a local child care coordinator, Johnson is responsible for orienting Harford County au pairs to their new environment and meeting with them once a month. She also speaks with host families monthly and organizes get-togethers for au pairs and families.

Johnson said most au pairs decide to come to the United States for travel opportunities and to improve their English.

"I tell all the girls in my group, by the time they leave, they'll be dreaming in English," she said.

Au pairs share their language and traditions with their host families. Gil taught Caren, who has not yet entered kindergarten, Polish words for "please," "thank you" and "I'm sorry."

Gil said she had difficulties understanding American lifestyles and attitudes at first.

"I was kind of naive at the beginning," she said. "I thought everyone was so nice. Now I realize there are some people who really care, and I can recognize who they are."

Nineteen-year-old Anna Maier, an au pair from Germany, had a similar observation.

"People are friendly here, but there is not much behind it," she said.

Maier, who arrived in the United States in September, cares for 1 1/2 -year-old Jack Knorr in Darlington. Wearing jeans and a light-blue sweater that matches her pale eyes, Maier keeps her hair in a ponytail and could pass for a typical American teenager, aside from her German accent.

Maier had to deal with a cultural adjustment for any 19-year-old European moving to the United States -- she is not able to go out to bars. The legal age in Europe is 18, so by the time Maier left Germany, she had already enjoyed several months of the nightlife scene at home.

Maier made the best of the restriction by learning what she could about another aspect of American culture -- holidays celebrated in the United States, like Thanksgiving.

In return, she made Jack a traditional German gingerbread house as a Christmas present.

Good company

Across the county in Aberdeen, Rosario "Charo" Veliz, 23, helps pregnant stay-at-home mother Monica Wright care for her three young children.

Wright said that with her doctor-husband working long hours during the day, she needed extra help and appreciates the company of her au pair.

"Everyone is just happier," she said. "I have someone to eat dinner with, and adult conversation throughout the day."

Veliz brought Peruvian traditions to the Wright house, including her favorite native beef dish, french fried potatoes, onions and tomatoes served with rice, which quickly became a family favorite.

"We like the fact that she's from another country," Wright said. "She's teaching the children Spanish."

Journey to America

Cultural Care Au Pair, one of the largest au pair agencies in the country, is regulated by the U.S. State Department and connects au pairs from Europe, Central and South America, Mexico, South Africa and Australia to families.

An au pair's journey begins with a Cultural Care application. Recruiters screen the applicants, and only 30 percent are accepted into the program.

Cultural Care headquarters in Massachusetts then matches au pairs with families and sends the au pair's information to the family to review. The family can call references and interview the au pair before making a decision.

An au pair's first week in the United States is spent at St. John's University in New York attending a four-day training program focused on child development and safety. After training, Cultural Care provides transportation for the au pairs to their homes, where they will stay for 51 weeks.

Au pairs are required to fulfill six credit hours of schooling during their year in the United States. The host family pays up to $500 for the au pair's education expenses.

The au pair's host family is also responsible for paying the au pair a weekly stipend of $139.05. This fee, determined by the State Department, is equal to minimum wage minus the cost of room and board.

The family also pays a program fee to Cultural Care. The costs add up to about $6,000.

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