Home work: Live-in nanny program finding a niche locally

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— Visiting the Koepfer household in Steamboat Springs brings to mind a famous saying: "Lead, follow or get out of the way."

Jennifer Koepfer, a mother of three rambunctious children, was spending a typical Monday morning taking a child to preschool, tapping on the computer and answering phone calls for one of the four businesses she helps run from her home.

"I do function, but I function with three people attached to me," Koepfer said with good-natured humor about her children.

Koepfer found help this year in the form of a British au pair who has come to live with the family for a year.

"I've always had nannies when I needed them, but we wanted someone more full-time," said Koepfer.

In this case, 24-year-old Victoria Blasdale is the new "family member" from Leicester, England.

She quickly shooed away the family's two large dogs to create more room for two visitors, then gathered a pair of children out of Koepfer's hair while she tended to business on the phone.

Blasdale is part of a new program in Steamboat Springs, sponsored by one of the largest au pair agencies in the country.

EF Au Pair is a nonprofit group that places young adults from foreign countries into American homes. The au pairs provide child care while at the same time offer a cultural exchange for both sides.

The Koepfer family in Steamboat is serving as the program's local guinea pigs.

Koepfer said it was difficult juggling her businesses with three young children, while her husband sometimes worked out of state.

As she was explaining the benefits of a live-in nanny, she was called away once again to the phone to tend to a customer.

Blasdale picked up where her very busy employer left off.

"It's a guaranteed long-term thing," Blasdale said about having a live-in au pair.

"You have stability for the children and you develop a trust with them."

Au pairs are brought in on a 13-month visa provided by the U.S. government. In the EF Au Pair program, adults age 18 to 26, stay with a family for 12 months before traveling the last month on their own. During their stay, they must attend a local college and take six hours of courses as part of the cultural exchange.

In Blasdale's case, she's taking a sociology class and even got an acting part in the local theater.

"I feel like I'm a family member," said Victoria, as two of the children were siding up to her with books and toys.

Tami Thurston is the program's Steamboat coordinator, who hooked Blasdale up with the Koepfers.

She interviews local families and sends applications to Boston where the program tries to match the family with several au pairs that would fit into their lifestyle.

Full Cost: $14,126.55 per year Application timeline: about a 10-week process Requirements: Au pairs go through a screening process and 32-hour orientation and training program. They are medically insured, proficient in conversational English, 18 to 26 years old, have child care experience and agree to follow household rules. Homelands: Most au pairs are from Northern Europe, especially Germany, Poland and Sweden.

"The family gets applications with pictures, history and experience," Thurston said.

After a few phone calls to the au pairs, the family is usually able to find a good fit she said.

Thurston explained 70,000 young adults are interviewed abroad but only 15,000 get approved for visas.

"They (au pairs) go through a training program in Long Island, N.Y.," Thurston said.

"They have training on early childhood, cultural differences and safety procedures for dealing with sick children."

Blasdale also said she had to go through psychological and medical screening and undergo a police background check.

All this is important for those who remember the infamous case three years ago, when a young au pair in Boston was convicted of second-degree murder involving a baby she was caring for. Prosecutors said the baby had been shaken and likely hit up against something hard. The defense said the baby likely fell.

Accused child killer Louise Woodward was brought into the country under EF Au Pair's program. A judge reduced her conviction to involuntary manslaughter and she was later freed to go home to England.

"It definitely was a challenging time," said Susan Robinson, EF Au Pair's program director at the Boston office.

Robinson said the case didn't affect repeat business.

"It did have some affect on our new business, because families had more questions about the program," Robinson said.

EF Au Pair responded to the controversy by tightening up already stringent guidelines.

The program added four safety training sessions that must be attended while the au pair lives in her new home.

They also created a household handbook and a daily communication log.

"The parents give her (au pair) a weekly schedule and writes down what the au pair should do that day and what the kids are doing," Robinson said.

According to media reports, in the Louise Woodward case the parents made it clear they were unhappy with her "late hours" and told her "to be more diligent" just a week before their baby died.

A communication log might have helped clear things up.

The household handbook explains how items work in thehousehold.

Local coordinators such as Thurston mediate between the family and au pair if problems do arise.

According to Robinson, the program moves the au pair to another family in about 15 percent of the cases.

"The vast majority of those changes take place because of personality," Robinson said.

She also said 72 percent of the families who hosted au pairs last year went with the program again this year.

In Steamboat's first au pair placement, things seem to be going perfect for the Koepfer family and their au pair.

"I don't feel like I'm an employee," said Blasdale, who is often awarded with hugs and kisses from her little wards, 2-year-old Samantha, 3-year-old Alec and 5-year-old Dane.

Koepfer said the feeling is mutual.

"She's great. We would adopt her if we could," Koepfer said about Blasdale.

EF Au Pair stresses that the au pair's sole responsibility is the welfare of the kids.

The au pair is limited to working 45 hours a week and no more than 10 hours a day.

The au pair must also be provided his or her own bedroom and is often required to drive the children around to activities.

Jennifer Koepfer said having a full-time nanny is great for her and her husband's hectic schedules, but it also made good economic sense.

"We wanted to try and absorb some of the cost with room and board," Koepfer said.

With three children ages 5 and under, the move makes sense for the family.

Koepfer could be paying up to $425 per week to have all three children in child care and private kindergarten.

With the EF Au Pair program, the family pays an average of $277 per week.

However, most of that money has to be paid up front.

EF Au Pair requires a $250 application fee, then another $4,985 more before the au pair arrives at the home.

A payment plan can be set up, but the family is then required to pay the au pair a weekly stipend of $139, including a two-week paid vacation. The family is supposed to contribute up to $500 toward the au pair's education.

The total cost of hosting an au pair is $14,126 per year, whether the family has one or four children.

A typical full-time day care for a 2 and 3-year-old could run from $14,250 to $15,000 per year, if you can find one, Thurston said.

"You just can't go out and put a 2-year-old in day care," Thurston said, referring to the lack of day care services for younger children in Steamboat Springs.

In the meantime, EF Au Pair is happy to have Steamboat Springs on board, quite a change from most of their "urban" clientele.

People interested in the au pair program can call Thurston at 871-1118.

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