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Au pairs: A nanny alternative

If you're looking for live-in help with the kids, you might consider an au pair.

These college students from abroad can be like a big sister for the kids.

Lori and Seth Wise of Davie have had au pairs for the past four years, most of them from

Mother of a 2-year-old son with a second on the way, Lori Wise knew she needed another set of hands.

"We wanted the live-in help,'' she said, "And we wanted someone who was going to be young and vibrant ... We also wanted someone who was allowed to work in the country and someone with some education. Having an au pair was the most cost-effective way to obtain all of that.''

Now with three sons from age 9 months to 5 years, the Wises' need help more than ever.

Unlike nannies, who generally care for children as a career, au pairs are young foreigners allowed to provide live-in child care and take classes for up to two years. Under State Department rules, au pairs work up to 45 hours a week. They must be at least 18.

Naiara Amaral, the Wises' latest hire works 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. some days. They pay her about $250-$300 a week for 45 hours of help. She is responsible for playing with the kids, cleaning their room and doing the kids' laundry. The Wises also provide her with a private room in their home, a car and car insurance, as well as $500 toward her tuition at Broward Community College.

Au pairs are paid a lower salary than many nannies, since the host family is required to provide room and board. The family also pays fees to the agency that finds the au pair.

The program has gotten so popular that the State Department, which regulates the program, is considering raising the age limit from 26 to 30 and letting some former participants return for another year. Many were limited to one-year stints before the United States began allowing two-year stays in 2004.

The au pair program, started in 1986, is intended as both a cultural exchange and child care arrangement.

"There's always an adjustment period for the girl and for us,'' Lori Wise said. "They are young girls who have left their home to experience American culture for a year and it takes about four to six weeks before they feel comfortable here.''

The host family agrees to help the au pair register for school, open a bank account, get a driver's license, etc.

There are rules about how many hours the au pair can work and how many days off she gets.

"At first I was apprehensive about someone living in my home,'' Lori Wise said. "And I knew that child care is not the au pairs' calling in life. But I look for girls who say they love children, and who have some experience with children. If their application says they want to be an au pair because they have always dreamed of coming to America, I stop reading right there.''

The Wises have been pleased with all four of their au pairs.

"If they love my kids, I'll help them see whatever sight they want to see in America,'' she said.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.