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Culture club

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By Stephen Knapp

Longtime Evergreen resident Diane Purdy remembers the first time she asked Evergreen Fire/Rescue’s community education officer, Einar Jensen, to lead a home safety class for a group of her charges.

“It was four years ago, and we had it at my house,” Purdy says. “There were maybe four or five people.”

Well, the student body has grown a bit since then, and this evening Jensen’s holding forth in a spacious classroom at EFR’s Station No. 2 on Bergen Parkway. The lesson is scheduled to begin at 6:30, a target easily frustrated by the bitter cold and snow-packed roads. Shivering, jacket-clad students continue trickling in until nearly 7 o’clock. Early arrivals greet late ones warmly, and the room quickly becomes a happy cacophony of young people catching up with each other in strongly accented English.

There are 14 women and two men in the group, hailing from places like Germany and Panama and Sweden. Among them, they’re responsible for the health and well-being of dozens of mountain-area children. From Russia, from Brazil, from Colombia, they’ve come to Colorado to help fill the increasing local appetite for au pairs.

“When I started this job seven years ago, I had one au pair,” says Purdy, local child-care coordinator for Lakewood-based Cultural Care Au Pair Inc. “Now I’ve got seven just in Evergreen and several more in Genesee. The demand is growing because it’s affordable child care, and because it gives people a chance to learn about someone from another country.”

To be clear, Cultural Care’s au pairs aren’t technically anybody’s employees and receive no wages beyond a small weekly stipend.

“It’s not a job; it’s a cultural exchange program,” Purdy explains. “They come here for one to two years on a J-1 visa. In the typical host family, the mom and dad are both professionals who work outside the home. A lot of host families ask for an au pair who can teach their children Spanish, or German, or whatever. They want to expose their kids to another culture.”

Cultural Care provides time-strapped parents with a fully vetted and documented au pair for about $300 a week. For their part, young Mary and Moe Poppins are required to spend 45 hours per week minding the kiddies and log at least six credit-hours of higher education.

“I’m studying English language at Front Range Community College,” says Virginia Thomazi, an outgoing 25-year-old from Sao Paolo, Brazil, who spends on-duty hours in an Evergreen home chasing a pair of 10-year-old twins and a 7-year-old. “I can’t complain about the work. They are very polite kids, and it’s more fun than work.”

While the au pairs undergo a rigorous four-day orientation class in New York before being assigned a host family, Purdy schedules regular classes throughout the year on topics ranging from driver education to playground safety. Jensen offers his two-hour fire and home safety seminar free of charge.

“This is important information that they need to have,” he says. “When the parents are out of the house, these young people are acting as the parents and caring for the children and the home. Teaching them how to do that safely is a natural job for the fire department.”

An interactive, hands-on affair, Jensen’s class kicks off in the classroom and hits sober subjects ranging from burn prevention to devising an emergency home escape plan. His delivery is crisp, informative, and often quite funny, although a lot of his best material seems to get lost in translation. His perfectly apt characterization of the au pairs as a herd of zebras hanging around a crocodile-infested watering hole, for example, earns only blank stares. Still, most of his shots seem to find their mark.

“It is very useful,” smiles Karen Espejo, a graceful 26-year-old Bolivian who takes geology classes at Red Rocks Community College. “I know I’ll be more prepared if there’s ever an emergency.”

Like several of her peers, Karen’s on her second year in the program. Unlike any of them, she’s also on her second state.

“My host family moved to Evergreen from Minnesota a month ago,” she says. “They only have one 2-year-old girl, so that isn’t too much work, but moving was a lot of work.”

Purdy’s duties as child-care coordinator cover a surprising amount of ground. Besides checking out prospective host families and mediating the occasional household clash, she serves her au pairs as combination advocate, confidante and activities director.

“When they first arrive, these girls are vulnerable, afraid and completely dependent on their host families,” Purdy says. “They need a friend, somebody they can talk to, and they need to trust me enough to tell me if there’s a problem in the home.”

To help ease their sense of isolation and allow them to socialize with others who understand their circumstance, Purdy schedules monthly au pair meetings. Sometimes they’re in conjunction with a fun activity like bowling or a picnic. Sometimes they entail some form of safety training like, say, Jensen’s fire and home safety class.

“They’re at that age when their social life is very important to them, and when their shift is over they’re usually out the door to be with their friends,” Purdy explains. “By making plenty of time for them to do things together, they become their own circle of friends, their own support system. It’s important for them to have a little fun when they aren’t working.”

Jensen takes the group into the station’s kitchen and dares them to identify the hazards therein. It doesn’t take them long to find and correct a half-dozen common perils like dangling electrical cords, carelessly abandoned knives and pot handles jutting out from countertops.

When Purdy first signed on with Cultural Care Au Pair, she feared lest the mountain area prove too tame for her young adventurers.

“There isn’t that much to do up here, and it can be hard to get around. Most of these kids want to be in a city where they can walk to the malls, and walk to the clubs, and it’s easy to see their friends. I was afraid they’d all want to be reassigned to families in the city, and I was actually surprised when that didn’t happen. Once they spend a little time up here, they love it.”

“I’ve been in California and New York and Colorado, and I love Colorado,” confirms Virginia. “It’s the best place in the U.S., I think.”

Finally, Jensen walks the au pairs across the frozen parking lot to inspect EFR’s impressive Station No. 2 fleet and meet the sleepy fellows on night shift in dispatch. It’s a good tour that Jensen does well, and the excited company can’t resist posing for pictures to send to the folks back home.

By 9 o’clock, the lesson is ended and the au pairs are free to leave, though they take their time about it. They laugh and chat and drag their feet, perhaps trying to keep the happy reunion alive for a few minutes more. Then it’s out into the cold and away toward the host families that depend on them.

Despite representing diverse cultures and climes, Purdy’s au pairs all share two specific ambitions.

“I need to learn better English, and I always wanted to see America,” says 20-year-old Mariana Castro, a petite Brazilian with coal black hair and a modest demeanor. “I think this experience is important to my professional and personal life.”

“I wanted a break from school, and also to see America and learn more English,” says Sandra Tourtchaninoff, a very blonde Swede assigned to a three-rugrat Kittredge home. Though just a few months into her tour, Sandra already seems well schooled in Colorado’s own unique cultural priorities. “In Sweden I studied media, but when I go back, I think I’ll study to be a personal trainer.”

“I thought this was a unique opportunity to see America, and I want to become better at English,” says Sasa Daudbegovic, a tall and sociable 25-year-old from Bosnia. “My host family is in Evergreen, and I go to school at the Colorado School of English in Denver. It’s a good situation.”

Whether he knows it or not, Sasa’s a leader in a traditionally female field, and the number of men applying to Cultural Care is rising fast.

“Sometimes we refer to them as ‘mannies,’ ” says Purdy, with a wink. “Not in front of them, though.”

But Sasa didn’t sign on to break stereotypes or make a point.

“I needed to go somewhere by myself, away from my home and the people who love me,” he explains. “I needed to challenge myself.”

These days, Sasa excels as a kind of very big brother to twin 4-year-old boys and their 3-year-old sister. They’re a handful, but he considers them well worth the trouble.

“It can be a lot of work,” he says, “but when they give you a smile at the end of the day or say, ‘I love you,’ you forget about all the trouble.”

To learn more about Cultural Care Au Pair Inc., call Diane Purdy at 303-670-9566 or visit www.culturalcare.com.