MOUNTAIN TOP — Drs. Chris and Lisa Holtz knew they had to devise a childcare plan before expanding their family. What they didn’t know was that the plan would include expanding their family even more than they expected.
The two pediatricians have been clients of Cultural Care Au Pair since the birth of their first daughter, Lilly, now 4. The Holtzes are also parents to 2-year-old Gracie and, in a way, Jil Stasch, the couple’s 18-year-old au pair from Düsseldorf, Germany. She’s the third live-in international nanny the couple has employed throughout their children’s lives.
Cultural Care Au Pair, a national company, matches American families with international men and women between the ages of 18 and 26 looking for an opportunity to brighten their cultural horizons while providing live-in childcare services. Contracts are in place for a year, but au pairs and families can extend those contracts in certain situations.
Bonnie Witkosky, a local childcare consultant for Cultural Care Au Pair, said the program is growing in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties, especially among professionals whose schedules don’t always work around that of a daycare center.
In the case of the Holtz family, irregular working hours combined with a lack of family members living in the area left them without a Plan B in case emergency situations arose.
Lisa Holtz, 39, is originally from the Philadelphia area, and Chris Holtz, 45, is from New Jersey.
“We would have had to move closer to home,” said Lisa Holtz.
With an au pair, the Holtzes can maintain their normal day-to-day schedules knowing that Stasch is able to take care of all the children’s needs, from getting them dressed, cooking them food, and driving them to play groups and other activities.
“If our child gets sick, there’s no way I can leave work. They are our emergency contact,” Lisa Holtz said of the family’s au pairs. “It has saved us during snow days, or during (the children’s) sickness.”
Lisa Holtz described finding an au pair via the website, www.culturalcare.com, akin to online dating — the couple enters their requirements in a search engine and sift through thousands of profiles to select their au pair.
For the Holtzes, it was about finding someone reliable with a bubbly personality who also liked interacting with children. The program has requirements the au pairs must meet depending on the age of children in the family.
After selecting a suitable profile, the au pair and the family conduct interviews via Skype.
“You have a gut feeling,” said Lisa Holtz. “People can say things that end up not being true, but in the end you can tell if someone’s a good person.”
The program works under the J-1 visa, which sets limitations to working conditions. Lisa Holtz said the pair are “sticklers for rules” so they find it easy to work with the guidelines. Au pairs cannot work more than 45 hours in a week and are allotted two weeks of paid vacation during the year.
While the program focuses on creating a cultural exchange-type of experience for au pairs and their host families, that doesn’t mean the selection process isn’t stringent. Witkosky said applicants are interviewed and screened before ever being matched with their host families, and there is “zero tolerance” for any wrongdoing or behavioral issues.
Au pairs also undergo a four-day training course as soon as they arrive in the United States, which includes getting CPR-certified and other necessary childcare information.
The program’s costs are the same whether a family has two or 10 children, which Witkosky said makes it a viable option for those with larger families. According to the company website, cost for the program is $18,953.25 annually, or $1,579.44 monthly. That includes the $195.75 weekly stipend paid to the au pair by the family. Witkosky said the au pair applicants must also pay a fee to be part of the program.
Witkosky said she earns a “minuscule amount” as an employee of the program. She recently left her national sales director job to focus on growing the program in her territory, and she considers it a labor of love.
“I love it, I love what I do,” she said. ” I know I have affected lives. It’s time for me to do something I truly enjoy.”
Witkosky has been a liasion for au pairs from Brazil, Hungary, Germany, Colombia, Poland, Denmark and France. She has clients in Mountain Top, Dallas, Kingston and Clarks Summit. Her territory includes 142 zip codes and she works with au pairs from 33 countries.
To say culture shock can be an issue is an understatement. Chris Holtz said one of the most important things to consider is making the au pair feel comfortable in his or her new surroundings. To help battle feelings of homesickness, he likes to prepare dishes from the au pair’s native country as often as he can.
The Holtzes said they still keep in touch with their former au pairs and one even plans to come back for a visit soon.
“We send birthday cards, birthday presents (to former au pairs),” said Lisa Holtz. “… We share meals, holidays, we sit around and talk. It’s not just centered on the work.”
While Stasch said she feels like she’s part of the family, she also maintains an independent lifestyle. She lives in an apartment above the Holtzes’ garage — a rarity for au pairs in the area, according to Witkosky. Stasch also likes to visit fellow au pairs in the neighborhood (there’s one living a block away), but her favorite thing to do is, like many teens, go shopping.
“Everything is bigger in America,” said Stasch. “The stores are so big and they are always open.”