Since May 2016, Maren has lived and worked with the Lawrence family of Cottage Grove, Minnesota – host parents Misa and Daniel Lawrence, and their two children Hiroki, age 6, and Taiyo, age 5. Hiroki has special needs and is one of 600 people in the world with Phelan-McDermid Syndrome, a deletion affecting his 22nd chromosome. Hiroki is severely cognitively delayed, non-verbal and has been diagnosed with more than 15 medical disorders, from epilepsy and autism to asthma and autoimmune dysfunction. He wears diapers, uses a wheelchair for transportation and long outings, and must have his food cut carefully to avoid choking.

In their essay nominating Maren, her host parents wrote:

“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.”

Maren was surprised when she learned that she had been selected as Au Pair of the Year.

“I am honored and thankful for this award especially because I was not expecting it,” she said. “My decision to be a professional au pair was not about winning an award - I did it to make a difference in the life of a child that needs my skills and knowledge to improve and develop his own talents.”

The Lawrence family appreciates Maren’s personal and professional philosophy, which sees Hiroki as a person and not as a combination of his many 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. 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’s background and training as a speech therapist have helped her to increase Hiroki’s ability to communicate.

“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 five-picture word sentence such as 'I want to eat egg please.' He is learning that communication goes two ways and he is a part of it. He has a voice now.”

Thanks to Maren, the Lawrence family has experienced many firsts, from being able to regularly eat dinner together as a family to traveling to Japan to visit Japanese relatives.

"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 '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 appreciates the opportunity she has had to work with the Lawrence family and provide a positive impact their son Hiroki’s life.

“I feel very blessed that I got this opportunity through the Lawrence family,” she explained. “It is amazing to watch their sweet son Hiroki grow, to feel the joy of his family, be a part of his team, and help him to keep improving every day. There is so much potential in him. I hope that my work inspires and shows that there is always a way to grow.”

Maren has helped Hiroki to become more independent in his daily life, teaching him to put on his clothes, sit on a toilet, brush his own teeth and put away his clothing. She’s also helped him to respond to requests to stop running, ensuring he will be safer in the community.

“Because of Maren’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.”

Maren’s host mom, Misa, was thrilled that Maren was selected as PROaupair’s 2017 Au Pair of the Year.

“We are absolutely filled with joy that Maren was given the honor of Au Pair of the Year,” said Misa. “Stemming from her love for our six-year-old special needs son Hiroki, Maren's professionalism as a speech therapist and proactive problem-solving is complementary to our intentional parenting with our 2 young boys. What a gift to have a professional partner join our family and provide a clear direction with weekly goals. Thank you for recognizing and affirming Maren's gifts and talents as PROaupair’s best professional au pair!”