Sonia, au pair from Germany, joined her host family in July of 2020. She felt a connection with the Leeuws right away during the matching process and decided to spend her year with them in Vermont—a state she had never heard of before their conversations started. She felt like part of their family from the beginning, and even during a time plagued by COVID-19, Sonia decided to extend with the Leeuws for another 12 months. “I don’t want to leave,” she says, repeatedly, during an interview with us. “I feel like a part of the family.”
Sitting next to her during the interview is her host mom Sarah, who is equally happy to have Sonia in her life. “To me, Sonia’s more of a sister. She’s just part of the family.”
Sonia recently submitted a letter nominating the Leeuws for the Host Family of the Year award and they were chosen as our 2021 winners. Their success is likely due, in part, to do with their long history with the program. They have hosted nine au pairs since their oldest daughter was nine weeks old and have learned a lot during that time!
Sarah and Sonia agreed to share their tips for being a successful host family to help other parents who are excited to join the program.
Tip #1: Pay attention to personality
In their first year matching, Sarah and her husband were focused solely on an au pair’s childcare experience. But they quickly learned that a good personality fit is just as important (maybe more so) than specific experience, skills or background. “John came up with a questionnaire that has nothing to do with childcare. It’s more like, ‘What’s your favorite movie? Music? Sport? If you won the lottery, what would you do [with the money]?’ to learn about their personality. And this is how we’ve based a lot of our decisions.” They look for someone who likes romantic comedies and who likes to be active and outdoors, and find this approach results in a better match for both their family and the au pairs they are considering.
Tip #2: Stay in touch
To make the transition easier when their au pairs first arrive, Sarah and her family make sure to stay in touch after they match. “We try to email several times a week,” she says. “I start to follow them on social media and they can start to follow me. So they can see our life, as far as social media goes. We also try to set up a call once a month just so that we can continue to get to know them better and they can talk to the kids a little bit.” Their efforts to keep in touch made all the difference for Sonia who says: “From the very first time I met my host family I felt like I’d already known them for a lifetime.”
Tip #3: Make it a warm welcome
Sarah spends some time preparing her new au pair’s room. She shares, “I usually make a basket or bag full of things from Vermont—like chocolate and some syrup. For our last two au pairs, we also bought a sweatshirt that has ‘Burlington’ on the back.” According to Sarah, it’s also important to have food on hand that au pairs like. “I would always ask before they left if they have a favorite meal or any foods that they wanted to have in the house—because food can be sort of stressful.” She doesn’t want them to be worrying: “What if I don’t like what they have to eat?” Once they’re settled in, Sarah and her husband like to make sure their au pairs feel at home. “This is John’s line, he’s always like—’This is your house now. So, come upstairs, eat whatever you want. We’ll show you where everything is, but from now on, it’s all you!’”
Tip #4: Invest in the relationship
Spending time getting to know your au pair will make the exchange year more positive for everyone. The Leeuws always make an effort to bond with their au pairs and include them in all family holidays and vacations. “We always invite [our au pairs] to go where we’re going.” Sarah admits that her favorite trip with her host family was a roadtrip to Wisconsin: “We were in the car for three days from morning to night. It was a long trip, but we had so much fun the whole entire time. The time passed by so fast, it was insane.”
Tip #5: Always communicate
Sarah’s last tip for host families is to always communicate. “I think that’s why we’ve been so successful—the communication piece and being completely upfront from the beginning. Some people I find that haven’t had the best luck…they just don’t communicate as well.” Their effort to communicate results in a mutual trust between the Sarah’s family and their au pairs. In Sonia’s nomination letter, she talks about that trust: “My host parents are like friends to me, and I know I can always count on them. I know that they would do everything in their power to help me if I needed it, and I would do the same.”
You can also listen to Sarah and Sonia’s tips in our YouTube video!