The Au Pair winner of the year 2017

Congratulations Maren Fander!

Meet PROaupair's Au Pair of the Year Maren Fander from the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany. Maren, a 26 year old Speech Therapist has lived with the Lawrence family of Cottage Grove, Minnesota since May of 2016. In her host family's words, "Maren Fander is the epitome of a professional au pair and deserves to be recognized for her leadership, hard work ethic, creativity, and perseverance while working with our 6-year-old son, Hiroki, a high special needs child with many complex medical, social, cognitive, and physical needs. Her professional background as a speech therapist has helped Hiroki surpass the prognosis of his syndrome; she has opened a world of possibilities for Hiroki, our family, his school, and our community."

Hiroki is a unique child, 1 of 600 people in the world with Phelan-McDermid Syndrome, a deletion affecting his 22nd chromosome. He is a non-verbal, severely cognitively delayed child (mental age estimated about 14 months old), diagnosed with Autism because of his deep need for repetition and routine, and Epilepsy. In addition, Hiroki has been diagnosed with over 15 medical disorders including Asthma, Autoimmune Dysfunction, Hypotonia (low muscle tone), Kidney Reflux, and Dysphagia (a swallowing disorder). He wears orthotics for stability when walking and uses a wheelchair for transportation and long outings. He wears diapers and all foods must be cut carefully to prevent choking. Many of Hiroki’s 22 medical specialists have been overwhelmed by the complexity of his needs, but Maren embraces him with her professional and personal philosophy: “I see him as a person. I don’t see him as his diagnoses or disabilities.”

Maren sets weekly goals for Hiroki, which center on independence, communication, and activities of daily living, and she works closely with Hiroki’s teachers and specialists to ensure there is a cooperative and collective effort to meet those goals. Hiroki will often cry inconsolably with any new activity or change in routine, so Maren created a summary of calming and refocusing techniques. For example: “Count from 1 to 10 slowly and then show him the visual schedule so he can see the sequence.” In this way, Hiroki’s agitation decreases and he can override his physical impulse to “run” and focus on the task at hand. Another example: “Ask him what he would like to do or where he would like to go. Wait for him to point and say that you understand what he wants.” This approach is possible because she taught him how to point with one finger and then taught him to point meaningfully in the direction that he wants to go. Maren is not only educating Hiroki, she is also educating his teachers, therapists and doctors. Maren consistently evaluates and pinpoints a need and then acts on her philosophy: “Focus on what he can do and use every opportunity to build on that.”

Maren has patiently and purposely used her professional knowledge as a speech therapist to open Hiroki’s world through communication. Before Maren arrived, Hiroki would cry for long periods of time in frustration because he could not regularly or reliably communicate his wants and needs to the “outside” world. Within a month of her arrival, Maren built upon his knowledge of the Picture Exchange System to program his iPad with the Go Talk program, an augmentative and alternative communication tool. She knew that his low muscle tone made it difficult for Hiroki to point to icons on the iPad with accuracy and force, so she used a blunt ended chopstick to rest in his palm. Knowing his greatest areas of interest (food), Maren taught him how to make a request by pointing to one picture. Now, he is able to string together 5 picture word sentence such as “I want to eat egg please.” Maren continues to adapt the Go Talk program so that Hiroki brings his iPad to school to communicate in all areas of his school life such as morning greeting, circle time, calendar, work time, and snack. Maren has reached one of her personal goals: “He is learning that communication goes two ways and he is a part of it. He has a voice now.”

Because of Maren, our family has experienced so many “firsts.” This Thanksgiving, we had our first family Thanksgiving together. Before Hiroki would have needed to go out for an afternoon activity since he could not stay calmly at home. This year for Thanksgiving and regularly throughout the week, we are able to eat dinner together as a family. He can sit during an entire meal whereas we used to give ourselves 5 minutes to eat before he became impatient. We were able to stay together as a family on Thanksgiving because Maren has increased his patience by mimicking the activities at school and incorporating physical, occupational, and speech therapy goals. We also had our first Lawrence Family Dance Party with all of us out of breath and beaming by the end of the song. Our most amazing “first” was traveling to Japan in July 2016 as a family so we could visit our Japanese relatives. Over the 18 hours of travel time, Maren kept Hiroki calm through the use of her homemade, adapted books such as The Hungry Little Caterpillar, singing, and cuddling. Although she was in a foreign country, she guided Hiroki through the streets of Tokyo, so he could enjoy the parks, zoos, and restaurants. Maren’s philosophy: “We will all grow when we are living our lives together. Hiroki must learn to be patient so we can have harmony.”

Maren has also helped Hiroki become more independent in our home and more safe in our community. Previously, Hiroki was considered a “runner” or “eloper,” not responding to his name and not stopping when in a parking lot, but now because of Maren’s training, Hiroki regularly responds to “Hiroki, please stop. Come back.” She teaches Hiroki to be independent in various areas of daily living. Before Maren, we diapered Hiroki, clothed him, brushed his teeth and hair; he did not exhibit much self-sufficiency. Maren taught Hiroki how to pull up his pants, put on his shirt, sit on a toilet, brush his own teeth, and put away his own clothing into labeled drawers. She also created a written routine for his bathtub so that while he is bathing, he is learning new vocabulary with his bath toys such as turtle, soap, and bucket. Maren’s philosophy is true: “Every interaction is a chance to play and learn.”

Because of Maren Fander’s professionalism as a speech therapist, Hiroki’s world continues to open. He is flourishing as he participates in new types of therapy and play: horse therapy, aqua therapy, Miracle League Baseball, Adaptive Ski, and Special Olympics. At the heart of Maren’s success is the tremendous love and hope she has for our special son, Hiroki.

Submitted by the Lawrence family of Cottage Grove, Minnesota

Runner-Up - Sophia Leonhardt

Meet Sophia Leonhardt (25), an Occupational Therapist from the Bayern region of Germany nominated by the Schueller family of Troy, Michigan. Sophia spent a year caring for the Schueller family's three children - ages 9, 2 and 1. Host mom Nikki Schueller says, "Sophia spent every moment of every day making our lives better and easier. She loved our children. She kept them safe and secure. She improved Parker’s quality of life in ways I could never have imagined."

I remember waking up on Sophia’s birthday last year, after she had been with us for over eight months, and I had one thought. How lucky I had been 25 years earlier on the day she was born. Because it almost felt like - she was born to usher us through the last year of our lives.

I don’t know where to begin when I want to describe how amazing Sophia is. Her list of qualities is endless. She was patient. She was kind. She was organized, efficient, loving and funny. Oh, so funny. I can’t tell you how many memories I have of being bent over in my kitchen laughing in the middle of the day. She was smart. Smart about her time, her money, her energy and her health. She was smart when dealing with my children and the endless parade of therapist and doctors in and out of our lives. She was always cheerful - and “on.” And boy, did she have a work ethic. She could seamlessly switch between our oldest Parker, who is severely developmentally delayed, can’t talk, walk or eat because of a series of rare conditions, our spunky toddler and a brand new baby. She did all this while maintaining perfect boundaries. And did I mention she was never on her phone?I honestly loved the sound of the door from the basement opening each day as Sophia emerged and the day took on new energy. My partner had arrived.

It was not an easy year. In the weeks before Sophia arrived, our oldest son’s health had taken a turn for the worse. We were truly afraid for him, where his disease was headed and if he would be strong enough to make it through the year. The first few weeks Sophia was here were non stop doctors appointments across several states trying to find new solutions to improve his health.

A few weeks after Sophia arrived my dad had a major stroke and three weeks later - he passed away. I was able to be with him every day until he died in large part to Sophia’s ability to immediately come into her job - learn what was necessary (without my guidance much of the time) bond with the children and do what needed to be done so I could be with my dad as much as possible.

Because of Sophia’s partnership in implementing the new health plan, attention to detail, and keen ability to observe Parker -his health started to improve. She continued to shuffle around from doctors appointment, to therapy to hospital test to try to help our son. In the meantime she was also working with him daily - on her own goals. Under her care our son learned to pick up and drink from a cup, hold and feed himself with a spoon and toilet. He improved in every area - he was standing more, walking more, using his speaking device with greater accuracy.

Our son has severe sensory processing issues - something Sophia had a little training in - but not much. But she was passionate about learning. She sat through every OT session - watched. learned and implemented the techniques. She read a sensory processing book, and then another and another. She was always, and I mean always thinking about how to improve Parker’s quality of life.

Slowly, he was starting to feel better. He was having more good days then bad. My beautiful, bright, full of light son had started to reemerge. He began to thrive again.

I suddenly realized - we all were thriving again. And I haven’t even mentioned our toddler loved her. Really loved her. He, who wasn’t talking when Sophia arrived, now spent all day trying to figure out where his “fia” was.It was all good timing how well this was going- since I was about to give birth to our third child.

The next few months were a blur of three under two (our oldest is 9 - but cognitively two) - three non-sleepers, three in diapers - the two year old was the most independent child we had. We attempted to move to Florida for a month so we could all get outside (escape the Northern winter)- the kids could play and our oldest - who loved the water - could swim.

A week after we arrived - all three kids got RSV. We spent the next three weeks taking care of three very sick kids, cleaning and doing laundry. That was it. We were in Florida for a month and made it to the beach one time for a walk. One time. Sophia took it all in stride - helping with every task necessary. She never complained - and she never missed a beat. She even watched all the children a few times so my husband and I could go out for a quick respite breakfast. It was finally time to go home - we could not wait. On the way to the airport we got a flat tire- missed our flight - caught another flight and finally arrived home. Five hours later - our toddler came down with the stomach flu - that would quickly spread through the house - including Sophia. Our oldest ended up very seriously ill and in the hospital for a week. Sophia - who insisted on only taking one day off - did everything necessary to help us through this time. She cooked. She cleaned. She watched the two smaller children. She stayed with Parker in the hospital. She supported us - always staying “Sophia cool” and upbeat.

Somehow we emerged from this time in one piece - mostly because of Sophia’s support and positive attitude.

We had earned our stripes as a family - and it felt now that Sophia was woven deeply into our family story.

Because she was. She has been there in death, in new life in sickness - in silly and crazy and hard and overwhelming and hilarious. We were all better because of her.

We were all better because of her.

During her last months in our home - there was a perfect rhythm, a calm energy. We had fun. We got so much accomplished. My husband and I went on dates. We went away for a night. And mostly - for the first time in 9 years - we trusted someone with our dear Parker (and a toddler and a baby). I got a break. A real break. In 9 years - I had not had a real break.

Sophia spent every moment of every day making our lives better and easier. She loved our children. She kept them safe and secure. She improved Parker’s quality of life in ways I could never have imagined. She made sure the toddler did not drink too many juice boxes and played sports, star wars and a million other things with him daily. By time she left, she was the only one who could bounce the baby to sleep. She could handle watching all three kids. She somehow also found time to reorganized our entire house and was always one step ahead of me each day.

If she had a jersey - we’d retire it. Sophia deserves to be au pair of the year because this is what I wrote in each card to her at the end of every month. “We couldn’t have dreamed her better.”

Submitted by the Schueller Family of Troy, Michigan

Runner-Up - Julia Mertins

Meet Julia Mertins (23), a Speech Therapist from Frankfurt, Germany nominated by the Schulenburg family of Winnetka, Illinois. Caring for the family's two children, Luke (10) and Bennett (7), Julia has touched their lives in so many ways. "Julia has amazed us so much it is hard to put it into words. It is incredible how a stranger can come into your life and touch your heart. When I first contemplated inviting an Au Pair to live with us, I was hoping for someone to help with the kids and make our life a bit easier. What I got with Julia Mertins, with 100% certainty, is a permanent member of our family."

When I read the directions for the Au Pair of the year contest, to include stories about how our au pair “has helped your child/children, positively affected the family, become part of the community”, it is hard to decide on which of the amazing stories to share. Julia has amazed us so much it is hard to put it into words. It is incredible how a stranger can come into your life and touch your heart. When I first contemplated inviting an Au Pair to live with us, I was hoping for was someone to help with the kids and make our life a bit easier. What I got with Julia Mertins, with 100% certainty, is a permanent member of our family.

Our son Luke is a sweet, adorable, nearly 12-year old (says his totally unbiased mom) that has autism, is total non-verbal, non-communicative and not potty trained. To say it is challenging, loud and extremely messy to care for Luke is an understatement. I get frustrated, tired and often complain. Julia may get frustrated and tired but I would never know for she NEVER complains. She is a joyous, happy person that lives life in the most positive way. From day one, Julia has made Luke her first priority. Luke has trouble sleeping, often jumping on the bed, banging the walls and making his unique sounds. To help him sleep, Julia will lay down next to him, calming him down with her amazing singing voice. When she stops, Luke takes one finger and touches her face to indicate that he would like her to continue. To get him to stay on the toilet, hoping for some success, she again sings. For Luke’s Christmas gift this year, Julia took her time and money to go to a recording studio and sing perfect versions of Luke’s favorite songs. The note on the CD said “No matter how far apart we are, this gift makes us always seem to be around somehow. #happypoopsforever Love Julia”. As the songs played and Luke rocked back and forth to the music, everyone in the room cried. Luke has never received such a meaningful gift. It doesn’t matter that Luke cannot communicate. She knows him better than anyone. She knows his heart.

With our younger typical, son Bennett, she never runs out of energy or activities. They create elaborate pillow forts, paint rocks into spiders, pumpkins or monsters. She has endless patience for his explanations of his lego creations, stick ‘laser shooters’ or any other creative item he dreams up. She disciplines him when necessary and loves him endlessly. With both kids, she is always up for an adventure, planning picnics at the beach, outings to the planetarium or creating delicious dinners together. To me Julia seems like a mix of daughter, little sister and friend. She is fun to be with, making the days when my husband travels less lonely and more fun. We jam in the car to music and swear we will one day make a lip-sync video. She rolls with the crazy of our family and loves to participate in everything we do. Most importantly, she seamlessly takes over for us when we are gone, keeping our kids safe and cared for. When my older son Luke broke his arm during our last day of Christmas vacation in California, we knew we could send Julia home to Chicago with Bennett by themselves without any concern. The relief for a parent of not having to worry about one child, while taking care of another cannot be overstated.

Outside the home she is equally active. She took an acting class at college last year. When the Emergency Medical Tech class needed someone to ‘act’ as a patient, Julia went. She enjoyed the group so much she volunteered with them for the rest of the year without any credit, compensation or benefit to her. She did it to be part of the community, meet people, and most of all help. She made lasting friends with the class and had the most hysterical stories to tell us each time. Julia is also a magnet for the au-pair community in the North Shore. She plans events and reaches out to every new au pair to include them in the group. They are lucky to have her.

Although I might not be able to express to you how much Julia helps us, does for us and most of all means to us, she is, to our family, The Au-Pair of the Century.

Submitted by the Schulenburg Family of Winnetka, Illinois