Watching Dayana Silva run around with toddlers Jed and Mary Blythe Huntzinger in their backyard, it's as if she's known them for years. That comfort, said their mother, Caitrin Huntzinger, is a result of the close bond Silva has formed with the family by living with them for the past several months as an au pair.
Silva is one of dozens of au pairs living and working in the area through local chapters of the program Cultural Care. Tina Sauer, a Cultural Care childcare coordinator based in Laurel, works with approximately 20 families in the Howard County area, including the Huntzingers, to bring them together with young people from around the world who come to the country to immerse themselves in American culture and language by living and working with a family.
"With an au pair not only do you have the cultural experience, but also the person is a natural fit in the family," Huntzinger said. "So it doesn't feel as much like a stranger."
Sauer, who is originally from Germany, said she was drawn to working as a childcare coordinator for Cultural Care because of her love for working with people from different cultures. She is one of two cultural care coordinators in the county, and runs her business out of her home, where she also hosts different events for the au pairs throughout the year.
In the five years she has worked for Cultural Care, Sauer has helped match close to 40 families in the area. She enjoys getting to be a part of the "melting pot" of the United States, and helping more people experience American life.
Sauer said she takes great care when helping match au pairs with families in the area, visiting every home before deciding if a family is right for the program, as well as checking in on the home frequently once the au pairs arrive. When looking at a potential family, Sauer said she thinks of her own daughters, and if she'd want them to live with that family.
All of the au pairs in Sauer's chapter are women, but she said other local chapters often have one or two male participants.
Potential families and au pairs must undergo background checks as well as in-person interviews, and Cultural Care, like all certified au pair programs in the country, must abide by State Department regulations, including that au pairs work no more than 45 hours per week and are paid at least $195.75 per week. The State Department also requires that au pairs receive two weeks vacation, at least one and a half days off per week and that their responsibilities are related only to childcare.
This cost is lower than some other options for child care in the county, where average costs for care can range from $368 per week for infants and $236 per week for a school-aged child at a child care center, and $240 to $176 per week for family child care programs, according to the Maryland Child Care Resource Network.
Office of Children and Family Services Program Manager Debbie Yare said the county does not interact much with au pairs and families as they are not regulated at the local level, but that she knows families often choose au pairs because of the convenience of having child care in the home.
Sauer's job is also overseen by a Cultural Care program director, who will visit the area throughout the year.
"I try to really make sure the au pairs are really part of the family," Sauer said. "I make sure my girls are safe, and that they are in an environment that my own child would be comfortable in."
After living and working with a family for up to two years, Sauer said there is often a strong bond formed between the family and au pair, and the majority of the families she's worked with stay in touch after their time together has ended. Sauer said one former au pair from her chapter has come to visit her former family in the county three times over the last five years, and that other families take trips to visit their au pairs abroad.
"They really do build a bond that is forever," Sauer said.
Choosing au pairs
The chance to experience American life was one of the reasons Silva said she chose to participate in Cultural Care, as well as to continue working with kids, which she said she had experience doing in her home country of Brazil. After interviewing with almost 20 families, Silva said she had a good gut feeling as soon as she started talking with Caitrin and John.
"I saw their profile and the first thing I thought is 'Oh my goodness I see the love in this family,'" she said.
Huntzinger and her husband, John, have used au pairs as their preferred child care for several years, and have hosted Silva, who is their third au pair, since last December. She said the family chose Cultural Care because of the close relationship it allows the kids to have with the au pair, as well as the support Sauer offers to families as they match and get settled with an au pair.
Hosting an au pair was the right choice for the family, Huntzinger said, because it allows her children to stay at home during the day, rather than going to a day care, as well as create a closer relationship with their caregiver by living with them.
Huntzinger said the cultural exchange aspect of having an au pair wasn't initially the family's draw to this form of childcare, but it's been a wonderful addition to their lives. Silva has brought Brazilian foods to the family, such as traditional Brazilian cheese bread Pão de Queijo, as well as taught Jed and Mary Blythe Brazilian songs and nursery rhymes.
"So that's been really fun just to expose them to something different," Huntzinger said. "It was something that we knew would be a benefit, and it's been lovely."
Wanda Forrest, who lives in Laurel and has been using au pairs for her two daughters for 12 years, said she initially chose to use an au pair over other forms of child care because of the flexibility it offers, as she and the au pair can set a schedule that includes nights and weekend hours when needed.
Forrest said it's also been fun to share different aspects of American culture with their au pairs, including their current au pair Roosa Anttonen, such as going to Orioles games and theater productions.
Anttonen, who's been with the Forrest family for almost a year, said she's enjoyed trying different restaurants in the area; her favorite so far is Eggspectations in Ellicott City, where she especially likes to order pancakes. She also frequents Columbia, where she watched this year's 4th of July firework celebration by Lake Kittamaqundi.
One of the core aspects of Cultural Care is the requirement that au pairs also enroll in college courses during their stay. Families are required to contribute up to $500 toward their au pair's education during their stay, per State Department regulations.
Silva, who said she hopes to become fluent in English, is currently taking an intensive English class at Howard Community College, where she's been able to meet other native Brazilians.
Anttonen has also taken intensive English at HCC, and is taking an American history class that will include trips to local museums. She said she's enjoyed that her professors here have "made learning fun."
The Cultural Care program is a great opportunity to participate in day-to-day American life, Silva said, as well as improve English skills. One of her favorite aspects of living in the area is its close proximity to Washington, D.C.; her goal is to visit every museum on the National Mall before her stay ends in late November.
Huntzinger said as a family they try to ensure their au pairs get to experience many different aspects of American life and holiday traditions, such as visiting the Clark's Elioak farm and pumpkin patch in Clarksville and celebrating Thanksgiving. Silva said she loved visiting Washington, D.C. for the Fourth of July.
Sauer also helps plan outings for the au pairs in her local chapter to expose them to more of American culture, most recently including a White House tour last week. As far as American cuisine, Sauer said many of the au pairs she works with have one thing in common — they love cheesecake. She said the au pairs in her chapter regularly dine at the Cheesecake Factory in Columbia; Silva called it her favorite American food.
Au pairs enter the U.S. on J-1 visas meant for educational and cultural exchange, which allow them to stay for one year. If they choose, an au pair can extend their stay for up to two years, according to State Department rules.
Huntzinger said the family plans to continue using the program after Silva leaves; they have already hired an au pair from Spain through Cultural Care. Silva is also set to stay with the Cultural Care network, and will start working with a family in New York City in late November. Huntzinger said they have plans to stay in touch with Silva after she heads to her next family.
Huntzinger said it's been special to watch Silva's English improve and confidence grow over the last several months, and said their relationship is like that of an aunt or big sister; she choked up as she talked about how close they've become over the last few months and at the prospect of saying goodbye.
"It's wonderful for us to watch the relationship with the children because Silva is more than just a babysitter," Huntzinger said. "She is such a valuable part of their lives and person in their life and they really see her as part of the family."