The Merkel family of Lino Lakes, Minnesota have hosted three au pairs over the years – one Australian au pair and two Brazilian au pairs. All of their hosting experiences have been positive and rewarding for the entire family; but their most recent one with au pair Thami from Brazil was so wonderful that Thami decided to nominate the Merkels for Cultural Care Au Pair’s very prestigious Host Family of the Year Award. The Merkels placed as one of the top 10 finalists out of more than 700 nominations.
Now in their third year of the program, the Merkels have kept in touch with their previous au pairs and are hoping to visit them soon in their home countries – they see their past caregivers as special members of their ever-growing, global family. And they’re immensely grateful for the cultural exchange opportunities they’ve afforded their children in their time together.
“We thought it’d be an opportunity to meet someone from another country,” says host dad Brian. “We’re not going to be able to travel for a number of years, so we can bring someone else here and we can exchange cultures and they can teach another language to the kids.”
Brian and his wife Elizabeth Merkel have three children – they learned about the au pair program about a year before their set of twins were born.
“I had a co-worker with a couple of kids, and he is originally from England,” says Brian. “When they had kids, they needed help with childcare, especially since he couldn’t drive. They really needed someone who could drive them around and wanted someone in their house with more flexibility than a regular day care.”
The Merkel twins were in special need of quality childcare with an individualized focus on the kids. Born at just 28 weeks, the Merkel twins spent 69 days in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). When the twins were finally able to return home, they were extremely fragile and required special care such as oxygen and medications.
“You can’t find a day care that will deal with the oxygen and medication and their immune systems were so bad at that point, the doctors said we couldn’t send them to a day care,” Brian explains. “My wife and I both work full time, and decided to look into the au pair program.”
Now, they can’t imagine their lives without it.
Brazilian au pair Thami also can’t imagine her life without the Merkels. “From the beginning, they welcomed me to their loving home and made me feel a part of their incredible family,” says Thami. “Liz and Brian have done so much for me during this year that it is hard to put everything in words.”
“Some of the most important things, though, were all the small gestures during my year,” Thami goes on to say. “All the coffees that Liz brought home, all the patience to help me with English grammar, all the proud faces when I got myself to the gym with her and she even rescheduled a work meeting to a Brazilian restaurant so I could taste some food from home.”
Brian says the family strives to include their au pairs in all of their family outings. “We invite them to do absolutely everything with us because they are a stranger in a new country and they might not have that support group.”
The Merkels consider the au pair program to be a valuable learning experience for both the family and the au pair, as they exchange cultures throughout the year. Thami has taught them how to play a Brazilian card game, while the Merkels taught her how to play cribbage. Thami also taught them how to make some Brazilian dishes, while Elizabeth shared an American dish. Their 5-year-old even corrects Thami’s English pronunciation and grammar sometimes.
“We have been able to grow and create a global family. They are more than just someone who is watching your kid, they really do become a part of the family,” says Brian. “You have another layer of support group that is hard to match [in childcare] because you really do get close to the people and they get close to your kids. Your kids get love and support from someone who is there with them all day every day.”