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San Clemente woman makes new life bringing professional child care to United States
By Jim Shilander
Susan Asay came to the United States from Germany to pursue her career in finance. Now, she helps many from her home country make the same journey to take the next step in theirs.
Asay, who lives in San Clemente, is the founder of ProAuPair, a company that helps to match childcare professionals from all over the world, but especially Germany, with the opportunity to hone their skills—and their English—in the United States. The company has evolved to cater especially to families with students with special needs.
“I came here in 2002 to work for (financial services firm) Pimco,” Asay said. “The company I was working for bought Pimco and I was sent as part of the integration team to Newport Beach for a year. I met my husband and we started a family.”
Asay said the hours she kept for work made her realize she needed help.
“I didn’t have any family here, they were in Germany and in Scotland,” she said. “Mike’s family was in Hawaii, the East Coast and northern California. I looked for nannies, but couldn’t find anyone who spoke German, because I wanted my kids to speak German. And I wanted someone who’d chosen, as a career, to work with children.”
Asay then began looking into the possibility of an au pair—a student often taking a gap year—from outside the United States who lives with a host family and provides child care. She found most of the potential candidates were, in her mind, too young, mostly 18 or 19 years old.
“I wanted someone who made a career choice in childcare and the existing au pair agencies—at the time there were 13—only had people without a degree,” Asay said.
Asay used her contacts in Germany, including large hospitals and the German Red Cross who train pediatric nurses or preschool teachers, and sent them a job posting asking for help.
“The first year, I had about 200 applicants,” Asay said. She then screened candidates and narrowed the choices to around 30, then flew to Germany to conduct a group interview. She hired two people, to work in shifts, and used one of the existing agencies to get their visas.
After a few months, she said, her colleagues began asking her about the experience. She provided the other names on the “short list” she’d put together, which, she said, soon became “shorter and shorter.” When the time came for a new search for the replacements for their current au pairs, Asay and her colleagues created the company.
Included among the lists were occupational therapists with experience working with children with autism. Through various connections, Asay’s company was able to place one with a family with an autistic child, and the word began to spread.
“Families with special needs have an even harder time trying to find help,” Asay said. “People with a strong background in working with special needs students are interested in coming to the U.S. because it advances their career. They can learn how the therapies are done here. Over the last seven years, now 75 percent of our families have kids with special needs.”
Ninety-five percent of the au pairs that have been brought over by the agency have been German, with the remainder coming from China, Poland, Hungary and recently from Mexico, Ecuador and other countries in South America. The company has placed approximately 500-600 au pairs, nearly all in the United States. In addition to screening au pairs, which Asay still does personally, the company also screens families to be sure they’re prepared for the transition. ProAupair is now Asay’s full-time job, with 70 employees working across the U.S. as well as in Germany and Australia.
“The German culture and American culture are not that different,” Asay said. “Having someone from abroad coming to work with your family is easier if the cultures are similar. In Germany, the education is fantastic. The government pays for everyone to get educated and to get a profession.”
The German system, she said, also provides a great deal of practical experience to go along with education. Having someone consistently at home, she said, is particularly helpful for families with autism, since they have someone with a background who knows how to work with their child.