ST. CHARLES – Since she was 12 years old, Julia Brockmeyer dreamed of spending a year in the United States.
The German student, now 20, also wanted to work with children – she had coached athletics in her hometown of Hannover and loved it – and by the time she was 18, she had her mind set.
“I always loved to do something with kids,” she said. “As high school graduation came closer, I was sure I wanted to be an au pair.”
Specifically, an au pair in America.
“[American] culture is so different,” she said. “You see it in movies and stuff, and I wanted to know how the culture really was. Germans are kind of cold; Americans are very open-minded.”
In 2015, Brockmeyer became an au pair for the Donehoos, a family of five in St. Charles, through Cultural Care Au Pair, the largest of 12 U.S. government-regulated au pair programs that are granted visas to distribute to au pairs.
Her success as a live-in caregiver earned her a Top 10 standing for the 2017 Au Pair of the Year Award, which was open to au pairs from six continents and 30 countries. The winner will be announced in coming weeks.
The Donehoos, who nominated Brockmeyer for the award, were ecstatic with the care Brockmeyer provided their three young boys. Moreso, they were thrilled with how easily Brockmeyer fit into their family.
“We see a lot of families where they get along, and it’s great, but I think [this was] that rare time where she fit in so nicely,” said Cindy Ruesch, who has a different last name than her husband, Bill Donehoo. “It’s the puzzle piece that fits and you don’t have to jam it into place. I think it takes a person willing to adapt and be flexible to make that occur.”
Brockmeyer was happily surprised with the nomination and her top 10 standing.
“It really touched me,” Brockmeyer said. “They always told me how much they loved [me], but when they wrote it and sent it to other people to read, that made me really happy. I just did my work. I did everything that I should have done. I didn’t know that would make the top 10 .”
Finn Donehoo thought Brockmeyer was a good drawer, especially of his favorite Pokémon.
Brenn Donehoo liked visiting Hickory Knolls Discovery Center and fishing at the nearby ponds.
Teige Donehoo loved fishing with Brockmeyer, too, plus date nights at California Pizza Kitchen and cooking German meals together.
“She made great German food,” Teige said. “It was one of the best things I had ever had.”
Teige, 8, and 6-year-old twins Brenn and Finn miss their au pair for those reasons, but Brockmeyer did more than just play with the boys, who were in her care from summer 2015 to summer 2016.
“The story I tell [is this]: Julia read with our twins every single day,” Bill Donehoo said. “She was physically active with them all over St. Charles and Batavia, but it was easily an hour of reading every day. When the boys were in preschool, they started reading on their own. They just wanted to take books and read to us. The amount of learning that took place when Julia was [here] was just phenomenal with the kids. They’re just thriving in kindergarten now.”
The Donehoo family is no stranger to the au pair program. Ruesch works in St. Charles School District 303, and Bill Donehoo travels for his job, so once the twins arrived in 2010, it became clear the family needed an extra pair of hands, Bill said. They’ve had an au pair ever since.
“We wanted someone that would have an emotional investment with our boys and love them,” Bill said. “That was really important to us from day one. Having someone live with your family, in our opinion, is more conducive to that.”
Cultural exchange also was important to the Donehoos, which the au pair program has provided. The boys have had au pairs from Sweden, Austria and Germany so far.
While each au pair – No. 7, Sarah Cluse, currently lives with the family – has shared unique gifts, Brockmeyer “put her heart and soul into our boys,” Bill said.
It’s why the Donehoos nominated her for Au Pair of the Year.
“I think for us, it was such a positive, happy year,” Ruesch said. “When we think about all of the things we experienced that made it so positive and made it so easy to get along, it had to do with her personality and how she interacted with other people. She had this group of girls and boys who were au pairs who became friends … and she had this ability to bring in lots of people and connect us in a number of ways to other girls. She had a girl from Austria, a girl from Germany, and they would cook German meals at our house. … She brought a lot of brightness and fun to the house, as well as just doing a great job with the boys.”
For her part, Brockmeyer said her environment made it easy to do her job, and do it well.
“From the first day I came to their family, they treated me as a family member,” she said. “They respected me; they never excluded me from anything, always asked me – also on the weekends – if I want[ed] to join them for going out for breakfast, dinner, lunch. I was always allowed to have friends over; they bought German food for me and even took me out to a German restaurant for my birthday. They are definitely my second family, and I could have never wished for a better host family, and I miss them, especially my three boys, so much.”
Au pair particulars
The au pair program in the U.S. is larger than many may think.
At any given time, there are between 7,000 and 8,000 au pairs in the U.S., all between the ages of 18 and 26, Bill Donehoo said.
There are nearly 300 au pairs in the Chicago area alone, said Michelle Terlecki, a Cultural Care child care consultant who supports host families and au pairs along the Randall Road corridor, typically 20 to 24 at a time.
Hiring an au pair, which literally means “on par” or “equal to” in French (which some say denotes the equality expected in the au pair-host family relationship), has distinct advantages, and more families are realizing it, Terlecki said.
“I think they’re becoming more and more prevalent because the cost of day care and nannies – live-in or live-out nannies – are becoming more and more expensive,” Terlecki said. “The [au pair] programs are growing, and the word is getting out. Families are realizing they’re not that expensive. The assumption was it was only for rich families, and it’s not. It’s very affordable.”
Au pairs are paid $195.97 a week by their host family, plus provided room and board and regular meals.
Cultural Care host families also pay an agency fee, which covers the services provided by the au pair offices – located in each au pair’s home country – including recruitment, interviews, background checks, language tests, personality profiles and more, Terlecki said. It also includes a one-week training school for au pairs, which they attend in New York before meeting their families, and local support from people such as Terlecki.
With the agency fee and au pair salary combined, a host family will pay about $385 a week, Terlecki said, which is less than $9 an hour for a 45-hour work week – what au pairs provide.
That’s not too bad, especially considering how carefully Cultural Care screens its applicants to fit an au pair with a host family, she said.
“[We’re] making sure the au pairs coming in are the right type of person to be in the program,” Terlecki said. “We don’t accept just anyone.”
In fact, Cultural Care accepts only 10 percent of the au pairs who apply, she said.
That careful screening process is one reason the Donehoos were able to find Brockmeyer amid a sea of applicants, Bill Donehoo said. And it paid off.
“If you have a lot of love in your family and you want your children to be surrounded by a loving caregiver and you are open to having that person as part of your family, this is a fantastic program for you,” he said. “If you’re just looking for a glorified babysitter, this program is not for you.”
Not gone forever
Though Brockmeyer is back in Germany – she’s studying tourism management at a university – she and the Donehoos keep in touch nearly every day.
In fact, the Donehoos keep in touch with all their au pairs, Bill said. Their first au pair has visited three times in the six years since she left, and Brockmeyer will be no different. She’ll be back in August, unless she wins Au Pair of the Year, in which case she will become the global spokesperson for Cultural Care and win a trip to the U.S. to participate in an au pair conference in March in Atlanta.
Regardless of the contest outcome, the Donehoos are appreciative of the time Brockmeyer spent with them.
“When you joined our family, we told you that saying good bye would be difficult,” they wrote in their nomination letter. “Our quote was, ‘If we are all not crying, then we were the wrong host family for you.’ The crying definitely took place from all of us. The hard part was the kick in the gut watching you walk through security at the airport. Our daughter was gone. It still makes our eyes well up with tears to type these words. We love you so much and cannot wait for you to come home someday.”
For more information about the au pair program, contact Terlecki at 847-980-1573 or visit www.mterlecki.aupairnews.com.