From Au Pair to Host Mom To Area Director, Claudia Riedt has seen all sides of the J1 Au Pair Program

April 18, 2017
In 1989, Claudia Riedt saw a post card on a pin board in her high school in Heilbronn, Germany, offering the chance to be an au pair in the United States.

“I was in my final year of high school, wondering what I was going to do, and I wasn’t ready to go to college yet,” she said “In Germany, we do a lot of high school exchanges with the U.S. and I had gone on all of them. I was so interested in America and wanted to explore it further. When I saw the post card I thought – that will be my next chance.”

Little did she know that her experience as an au pair at age 19 would turn into a life long association with the J1 au pair program – from au pair to host mom to area director for a J1 au pair sponsor.

Today, Claudia and her family live in Dallas, Texas. She and her husband Anthony have two children, Sophia, who is nine-years-old, and Kai, who is seven-years-old and has special needs. They’re currently hosting their 7th au pair, Loreen, a professional au pair from apex PROaupair, who has been with them since the summer of 2016. They are expecting their 8th au pair in July.

Claudia’s first experience with the J1 au pair program took place in 1989, a few years after the program was started.

“Back then the process was a little different – the host family picked me and then we spoke on the phone once to give me a chance to decide if I wanted to participate,” Claudia explained.

She did end up living and working with the Koos family of Herndon, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. Her host parents, Ken and Brenda, had one daughter, Sarah, who was just over 2 years old at the time.

claudia with ken and brenda koos [Caption (from l to r): Claudia, Ken, Brenda and Sarah in 1989]

“I still remember my first impression of Sarah, who was only 2 years and 3 months old,” she said. “She already knew how to work the VHS tape recorder. It blew me away.”

While Claudia had traveled to the U.S. before, this was her first time living in America and she had some concerns – particularly around food.

“Apparently, my first question in the car on the way to my new home was ‘what do you normally eat?’” she said. “I was afraid I was going to be eating hamburgers every day. Ken and Brenda quickly alleviated my concerns and that’s how our journey started.”

Claudia remembers working a lot but loving the experience.

“They accepted me into the family and treated me like any other family member,” she remarked. “They included me in everything – holidays, vacations – it was fantastic.”

Claudia’s love for the United States kept her coming back. After her au pair year, she returned to Germany and went to college. During her college years she studied for a time in the U.S. and then moved back to the U.S. almost a decade later to get her PhD. After Claudia and her husband got married in the U.S. and started to have kids, she let him know that she wanted to start hosting au pairs.

claudias host family with Kai [Caption: Ken and Brenda Koos with Claudia's son, Kai]

“It was always clear for me that if I had a child, I would want to have an au pair,” Claudia explained. “I wanted to try to replicate the experience I had for someone else. My husband wasn’t familiar with the au pair program and what it entailed, but I quickly showed him that this was the way to go.”

Claudia and her family hosted their first three au pairs from Cultural Care. But, after they discovered that their son Kai had special needs, she started wondering if a regular au pair would suffice. That’s when she started to host professional au pairs with apex PROaupair, the only J1 sponsor that specializes in matching au pairs with families with kids with special needs.

“Initially I was just a host mom with PROaupair,” Claudia explained. “But, once we had a second host family in Dallas I became an Area Director, too.”

Being an Area Director involves a variety of responsibilities. Before an au pair arrives, Claudia checks in with him or her, shares information about life in Texas, and helps them to get prepared for their year abroad.

“When the au pair first arrives I call to check in on the au pair and the host family,” said Claudia. “Then, in the first two weeks I visit the home and meet with the host family and au pair to go over the regulations, educational requirements, and other aspects of the program. During the first couple of months I check in at least twice a month and after that once per month.”

Claudia encourages the au pairs to start their educational requirement quickly, because it is a great way to meet American friends.

claudia kids and all au pairs [Caption: Claudia with her kids and several of her previous au pairs]

“I tell them, you don’t want to go home and say you’ve only met other German au pairs,” she said.

During the course of the year, Claudia plans monthly activities with the au pairs, in addition to the monthly check in calls with both host families and au pairs.

“At this point, I have a list of all the things we can do,” she said. “We’ve done an escape room, gone bowling, went to the best brunch in town, visited the ice carving spectacular, drove through 4 million Christmas lights, and visited the harvest festival. In June, we are going to a baseball game. My husband is leading the group that day because he can explain the rules to them and I can’t.”

As an Area Director, Claudia also provides support to both the au pair and the host family, should there be challenges or misunderstandings.

“I work with both the au pairs and the host families and hear both sides and help the other side to understand what is going on,” Claudia said. “I like being the middle man, helping them to anticipate what’s coming down the pike, so they have an easier time coordinating needs and wants.”

Claudia’s relationship with her own au pairs has been excellent, and she keeps in touch with every one of them. Last year the family went on vacation and invited all of their previous au pairs to come.

“We rented a house near Bryce Canyon in Utah and all the girls flew out to come vacation with us and our kids,” Claudia said. “The kids loved all the attention and loved knowing that the girls indeed saw us as their other family and would want to come and spend time with us.”

Family picture with two flags [Caption: family photo from Bryce Canyon]

The au pairs, some of whom had never met each other, all bonded on the trip and decided that they wanted to continue to go on trips together.

“They invited me to come along with them last winter, for a ski vacation,” said Claudia. “It was a bunch of 20-something year-old women and me – amazing fun!”

It is clear Claudia loves each of her au pairs like a member of the family and loves seeing them grow and change during their time on the au pair program.

“I see them adapt to a different lifestyle, become more accepting of people doing things differently, watch them learn to access situations, and grow in their independence,” she said. “They grow up faster and in a bigger way when they come to a safe environment but still have responsibilities.”

Claudia still remembers feeling like she could handle anything when she returned to Germany after her au pair year. She thinks that being exposed to new things helped her to grow.

Claudias au pairs 1 [Caption: five of Claudia's previous au pairs]

“The J1 program is the basis of building life-long relationships,” she said. “And this is very much the case with us. We Skype with our old au pairs, visit them when we are in Germany, and every year we have at least 3 of our au pairs come to visit us. It truly is an extended family and we love continuing the relationship.”

Claudia is still in close contact with her original host family and for years spent every Thanksgiving with them – even bringing along her future husband once they were engaged. For her wedding, her host mom Brenda was her matron of honor. Then, in 2015, for the first time, Ken, Brenda and Sarah Koos came to visit Claudia and her family in Texas.

“In my mind and heart this was one of my favorite experiences,” Claudia said. “We cooked and baked together just like in the old days, now with my own two children and our own professional au pair. And it all began with me being an au pair 26 years ago!”