Feature on growing trend of au pairs in the U.S.
Rain thumps against the roof of Martina Duechting's car, and the wipers scurry to clear sheets of water from the windshield. These are the only sounds this stormy afternoon in Plymouth as Duechting, a 20-year-old au pair from Germany, waits for the school buses to bring Izzy Tremblay, 8, and Owen Tremblay, 11, home.
"In Germany, it's 21 degrees Celsius -- or 70 degrees Fahrenheit -- now," Duechting says. "Here it keeps raining and raining. Summer takes a long time to come."
Izzy arrives first. She climbs into the back seat, her long hair falling in wet clumps down her back. A few minutes pass, and Owen joins his sister in the car.
"Buckle up," Duechting says as she starts the car and steers toward home. It's the start of an afternoon routine the three have kept since Duechting arrived in the United States nine months ago.
She's one of 21 au pairs serving families on the South Shore who were placed in their jobs by the Cambridge-based service Cultural Care Au Pair. She's also part of a growing trend across the nation to hire au pairs in lieu of traditional child care services.
"Every single year, the number of au pairs and families that we work with is growing," said Kate Kuzma, public relations and events manager for Cultural Care Au Pair.
The agency works with more than 800 Massachusetts families -- about double the number it served five years ago, she said.
Massachusetts is also home to au pairs placed by representatives of each of the nation's 11 au pair agencies, according to Darlene Kirk, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, which oversees the au pair program. Cultural Care Au Pair is the only Massachusetts-based service.
Nationwide, participation in the program has jumped by 30 percent since 2002, Kirk said. Nearly 16,000 au pairs from 22 countries served U.S. families last year. Cultural Care Au Pair says that total has risen to about 18,000 this year.
Au pairs are men and women ages 18 to 26 with child care experience who spend a year living with host families in the United States and caring for their children.
At less than $300 per week, paying for an au pair is a bargain for full-time child care, says Terry Tremblay, Duechting's host mother. The cost of hosting an au pair is the same whether a family has two children or six.
A tax accountant who works in Boston, Tremblay tried several day-care programs for Owen and Izzy before stumbling on the au-pair program about six years ago. Duechting is the family's fifth au pair from Germany.
"I'm a full-time working mom," Tremblay says. "The au pair can provide everything for my kids, kind of in my place. My kids don't have to get woken up in the morning, pulled out of bed and driven off to a day-care center."
Au pairs work a maximum of 10 hours per day and 45 hours per week. In exchange, au pairs get room and board at a host family's house, plus a weekly stipend of $139, as mandated by the U.S. Department of State.
Host families pay an additional program fee of about $150 per week to the au pair agency. The fee covers mandatory training programs and social activities for local au pairs, says Debra Betz, a Plymouth-based childcare coordinator for Cultural Care Au Pair.
"Au pairs are not here to make a lot of money," Betz says. "Their motivation is to come to America and experience the culture of America."
Betz helps match au pairs to host families and ensures that both parties understand the program. After au pairs arrive in the country, Betz maintains a social and support network for them. She also coordinates classes that keep au pairs up to speed on topics like water and bicycle safety or first aid.
Having an au pair is different than having a live-in nanny, Tremblay says. It's a cultural exchange that benefits both parties.
"Au pairs get to experience the food, the language, the customs of the United States," she says. "We get to learn about the language, food and culture of Germany."
Like most au pairs, Duechting sought the position so she could travel within the United States, experience a culture about which she had learned in school, and improve her English.
Duechting hasn't been disappointed. She's visited New York City, Niagara Falls and Washington, D.C., with other au pairs, and Florida and Hawaii with the Tremblay family.
"You hear so much about America," she says. "I wanted to see if American life is what we were taught in school, about going from rags to riches and living your life the way you want. It's exactly the way they say it is."
Because au pairs come to the United States on student visas, they are required to earn six college credits during the year. Duechting has completed an acting course at Cape Cod Community College and plans to enroll in a Spanish class at Quincy College this summer.
After returning to Germany in August, Duechting plans to pursue a career in languages, based on her success in mastering English this year.
"I took nine years of English in Germany," she says, "but I only got good at using it here, and it took some time. Now I'm thinking in English. I'm even dreaming in English."
Contact Alysa Landry at email@example.com.