Bridging Yards, Bridging Cultures, Guest Post by Amy Massey

by Amy Massey on May 29, 2014

Here’s a guest post from Amy Massey, a long-time reader, a host mom, and now a placement director with A.P.EX PROaupair. Amy writes about her experiences as a host parent who — like her backyard neighbor– has a child with special needs. Please note that this post isn’t sponsored by PROaupair, nor is it an advertisement for this agency.  

My friend Cindy and I have a lot in common.

We both juggle work, three children, and husbands who travel. We both have a child with special needs. We are both host parents to German au pairs who are Occupational Therapists. And we are neighbors.

Imagine how surprising it was to make these connections when I moved to Newton, MA three years ago and met our backyard neighbor, Cindy. It took no time at all for us to connect the dots and find commonalities in raising children, managing the complexities of life with children who have special needs, and hosting au pairs in our respective homes.bridge between two back yards, with girls lauging

But our relationship really flourished when we built a bridge. Our backyards are separated by a small stream that runs down the property line. The stream proved to be challenging for our abled children to cross, and was even more of a challenge for our children with disabilities. When it was time to renovate my family’s home, we had a bridge built to span the stream and connect the two backyards.

The impact of the bridge was noticeable. First came the gradual, but assumed addition of new backyard goodies which were happily shared– a vegetable garden, trampoline, makeshift putting green, tree house, swing set, and a dog to love. Over time, the sounds of squealing children increased and the kids would spend more and more time going back and forth freely between houses.

Thanks to the bridge, our yards have essentially doubled in size and our families find more opportunities to get together.

Combined family dinners were next. Nearly, two years later, there are a multitude of neighborhood gatherings and BBQ’s on our lawns. As we all spent more time together, our respective au pairs became friends and soon built a network of au pairs that would gather on these occasions. Now it’s a frequent occurrence for a host of au pairs to gather on the dual lawns for play dates and outdoor yoga sessions. When summer ends our families share Christmas’, Shabbat dinner blessings, Passover meals, German traditions with our au pairs, ice skating in the yard, and adaptive ski trips to Loon Mountain.

Our families have a special connection.

Both Cindy’s family and mine host professional au pairs who are trained to work with children who have special needs.

Our family has been hosting Anne Falkenburg (24), an occupational therapist from Germany spending a year in the U.S. as a professional special needs au pair. Anne has developed a special relationship with my three children including my ten year old son, Devon. Devon was born with a rare chromosomal abnormality and is globally delayed. Anne has high aspirations for her relationship with Devon. As she explains,

“I want him be able to dress himself independently. I want him to buckle his own seat belt and brush his teeth. This has just been a wonderful experience. ”

After being with the our family for 9 months, Anne has succeeded in working with Devon to achieve every one of her goals.

For Cindy,

“Having a professional au pair who is a therapist has allowed us to breathe. It allows us to have moments and experiences where we feel more like typical parents. My daughter needs assistance with all daily living tasks and it can feel all consuming. If my energy is always zapped with this one child, my concern is that my other children may feel as though their needs are not as important as their sister’s.”

Professional au pairs have degrees in such varied backgrounds as occupational therapy, physical therapy, special needs education, and nursing. They are paired with U.S. families who have one or more children with special needs for 1-2 years while gaining practical work experience in their field. At a minimum, these care professionals have a three year degree which includes two years of practical training & internships.

Having a child with special needs requires patience, consistency, flexibility & reliability. Being able to find caregivers, friends, and neighbors who not only understand these challenges but also help you meet them has made meeting these challenges a bit easier.

And the bridge? The bridge has brought us more than a bigger yard and a shared party space.  

The bridge has helped us create a safe haven for both of our families.

In a culture where it’s assumed that children walking outdoors unattended are not safe, a bridge has given all of our kids the freedom to be independent, run freely between houses without notice, and feel loved outside of their home.

The children who have special needs have an automatic friend in each other.

Their siblings have a place where their family isn’t so unique.

The professional au pairs have the chance to support each other. They can connect to discuss their challenges and share ideas on how to better reinforce the therapies they attend with the children at home.

And Cindy & I have a friend in each other, an sympathetic ear to listen, and a place to escape to on a bad day.

You might ask whether building a wooden bridge was really necessary. Couldn’t we have jumped over the stream, or gone around the corner to knock on each other’s front doors? Wasn’t what we all had in common enough to keep us connected?

What is it about a permanent bridge, even something as small as this 3 by 10 foot wooden walkway, that has made such a difference?

bridge with brother

The bridge between our yards spans a small stream. But that stream suggests that our yards and our lives should be kept separate.

That stream suggests that crossing is not safe.

And the bridge? The bridge makes it safe to cross over into each other’s yards and into each other’s lives. The bridge makes it easy to create a shared space to support each other. The bridge makes our yards into one big space, where we can invite the rest of the neighborhood and expand the friendships between all of our families.

The bridge reminds us that the connection we seek is already there. 


 Amy Massey is the Director of Placements with A.P.EX PROaupair, the only U.S. Department of State designated Special Needs Au Pair Program. A.P.EX PROaupair has strong ties with German non-profit and education institutions such as the German Red Cross and places screened care professionals with families who have children with special needs.

Cindy Kaplan is a certified Parent Coach, Family Therapist, and a licensed yoga practitioner for children with special needs.

To learn more about hosting a professional au pair, contact Amy Massey, A.P.EX PROaupair’s Placement Director at, or visit


Chris May 29, 2014 at 10:49 am

Great story. We’ve hosted many au pairs over the years and heard about many great experiences from friends who’ve also hosted. This one is up there in terms of touching stories!

Skny May 29, 2014 at 12:01 pm

I just wanted to point that I am a physical therapist who came through APIA. The Au pair who followed me on my family was an OT, and the next a speech therapist. None of us were extraordinaire. This family has an autistic boy and only host professionals from a regular agency.
As a host mom now (10+ years later), I have hosted 2 physical therapists (interested in learn about PT in USA. But have interviewed nurses, teachers and nutritionists with both expert Au pair and CCAP.
I feel it is possible to host highly motivated professional Au pairs through a regular agency that does not charge as much as APEX does.

Skny May 29, 2014 at 12:08 pm

My last comment is that although I have hosted 2 highly motivated physical therapists, my best Au pair (the one who really made the biggest difference in my kids life, the one who returned for 3 months to help me out when I was ready to give birth to child number 4 and had no one to fill the gap) is a lawyer by profession. I

WarmStateMomma May 29, 2014 at 12:56 pm


Skny May 29, 2014 at 12:10 pm

My last comment is that although I have hosted 2 highly motivated physical therapists, my best Au pair (the one who really made the biggest difference in my kids life, the one who returned for 3 months to help me out when I was ready to give birth to child number 4 and had no one to fill the gap) is a lawyer by profession. Not

Amy Massey May 29, 2014 at 12:22 pm

Hi Skny – Good on you finding those au pairs! I have hosted 4 regular au pairs and searched 5 months for each using both APIA and CC. I have never seen an OT, ST or PT with those agencies! They were all lovely and we remain close. We had a great kindergarten teacher but no one with the depth of experience as our OT. The progress my son has made is worth the cost variance in spades. If I found a therapist using the regular program, I probably would have stuck to them :). But I didn’t get close.

Returning HM May 29, 2014 at 1:10 pm

We had a trained physical therapist when our son was 2 and just learning to walk, and we had a speech therapist when he was 3 and still didn’t talk. I found both of these APs on, not through the agency websites.

Skny May 29, 2014 at 2:28 pm

That was how I found mine. Found them on great Au pair. Went to search and typed the profession I wanted. Most will even switch agencies if they like your family

Returning HM May 29, 2014 at 3:12 pm

One of ours did indeed switch agencies (she was with APC and we wanted to go through CCAP, so she switched). For the other, we went with her agency for that year.

NoVA Twin Mom May 29, 2014 at 2:02 pm

I’m glad to hear that there is an agency that seems to be seeking out “special needs qualified” (not just “interested”) au pairs, but I have to chime in as well – our au pair #3 was a physical therapist in her home country. It did not appear in her profile, it only came through when she had to reschedule a skype session because she had to work, so to make conversation we asked her about her job.

It’s weird that the other agencies don’t highlight this kind of thing.

Skny May 29, 2014 at 2:32 pm

It also depends where you screen from. My experience is that it is easier to find highly qualified Au pairs (nurses, PTs, OTs, teachers) from third world countries (such as South American countries (such as mine).
We graduate, work a year or so and realize there is no future unless we have a differential. Fluent English and foreign experience counts as this differential. That is what draw a lot of professionals from third world countries into Au pair program.

Returning HM May 29, 2014 at 3:14 pm

Yes, both of our therapists were from Brazil. Both ended up staying in the US incidentally. One got married right away and had her own family, and the other got her Master’s degree and now is a special ed teacher right near us (and right near the OP too). :-)

NoVA Twin Mom May 29, 2014 at 3:20 pm

Our physical therapist was also from Brazil :)

NJ Mama May 29, 2014 at 2:35 pm

I thought this was a very sweet post.

After a string of unsuccessful matches I did scope out proAupair, but it’s super expensive and not something we could afford. However, after talking to them it sounds like they really do take a lot of time to match you with an au pair who is a good fit for your family. So if you can afford it it may be worth it.

I also agree with NoVA Twin Mom — the agencies should really highlight experience in PT and OT.

Seattle Mom May 29, 2014 at 5:39 pm

This is so sweet! Our kids also love to play in the yards of the kids next door and across the street. But no one else on our block has an au pair- that would be really cool. Our neighbors have a stream on their property which is a huge draw for our kids. We love having such a kid-friendly block to live on.

I am with CCAP and interviewed an AP who was a nurse and another who was an OT- both in France. So I guess they are out there. We didn’t choose either- we didn’t particularly need their skills and they weren’t the right fit for us. It’s true that we came across them accidentally- there was no way to search for those professions, though they were listed in the details of their applications.

Taking a Computer Lunch May 29, 2014 at 6:40 pm

We have hosted 9 APs in 13 years and nearly all have had some professional experience – and 6 were extraordinnaires (1 of the 3 should have been, and one other was a professional who had done extensive work with children but not the requisite 2 years, 1 was immature and needed constant job coaching to make it through her year and I won’t be doing that again).

I have hosted one pediatric intensive care nurse, several educators with extensive special needs experience, and a psychologist. Like the OP, I have a special needs child, however mine continues to function at the infant level and requires full care. I look for some experience with special needs children – it doesn’t have to be like mine and an intention to work with children after the AP year.

Our bridge to our neighbors is the swimming pool that a charity donated to The Camel after a particularly difficult surgery. We share it freely and in the summer love to hang out with friends from the neighborhood. While we don’t have another special needs child at the edge of the garden, we do have several children who are growing up with a child who has special needs in their midst.

Summer B May 30, 2014 at 12:12 am

Love this post! I imagine finding Au Pairs who are trained to fit particular special needs are a dream come true for many families. With a whole spectrum of special needs out there I’m interested to know – what is the experince families with special needs children having? Is it really hard to find the right match? Or does needing certain qualifications in the Au Pair limit Host Families to a very small pool?

Anna May 30, 2014 at 8:15 am

I am interested in it too, and hope to learn from the answers. My kids don’t have special needs, but our family is hard to match – special diet, enthusiastic practice of religion that some may find not their cup of tea, and four kids…. I haven’t had a good matching record….. We do have a good au pair now but it took two rematches this year, a change of agency, and a loss of money, to get her.

Amy Massey May 30, 2014 at 11:02 am

Hi Summer B & Anna – Of course I can only speak from experience. YES – it’s hard to find the right match. For me, I must be 100% convinced. I’m 95% on many of them. I’ve learned. Now it’s a matter of 50% domain knowledge and 50% DNA (emotional intelligence/happiness/confidence). After having an OT take my son through so many milestones, I will not deviate. I didn’t select her thinking that she would do this. Now that I have it, I require it :). So to find the skill and the perfect DNA is not easy at all.

Anna – I tell each of my au pairs that we are really nice, fun and open people but we are NOT EASY. My kids will drain them. My au pairs must work all 45 hrs/wk. They will meet other AP’s who have it easier. Then I tell them about my worst days. I also ask them about their hardest days working with kids. I tell them that they are the gateway for my son and the world so she has to be joyful. I paint a really difficult picture and see how they respond. It’s worked really well for me :).

Taking a Computer Lunch May 31, 2014 at 7:10 am

The pool of “special needs willing” candidates who have actual special needs experience is super small, and those who are willing to consider spending their year caring for a child who requires total care is even smaller. However, for the few that reach the stage of Skyping with my current AP find that the rewards equal the work.

I will say that this year was particularly hard to find a match. Now that my kids are all teenagers, many qualified candidates reject us because they imagine spending their year with small children. We did match, and are looking forward to the arrival of our 10th AP later this summer. We have never gone into rematch, mainly because DH held me back – but only twice.

We can only host APs for a few more years before The Camel ages out of the school system, and I will be sorry. The AP model of care is so much better than the nursing model, which means far less cuddles for The Camel.

midwest aupair May 31, 2014 at 11:50 am

could you sponsor an au pair to stay with you, even though your child is to old for the program? I know it is very expensive, but maybe it would work?

Skny May 31, 2014 at 1:37 pm

Tacl, is the cut 18 or is the cut high school graduation? My oldest is special needs (although a different than yours), and is 17 but won’t graduate high school until she is 20.
If the line is 18, we have to figure out transportation for her in a year. Otherwise we are fine

Skny May 31, 2014 at 1:39 pm

Plus our Au pairs are the “friend” and role model

Multitasking Host Mom May 30, 2014 at 10:10 am

First I want to say; I so want a bridge in my backyard now! What a lovely bond these two families share. And I agree with the comment that it seems society norms looks down upon the act of letting kids run around unsupervised now a days. I could see how these kids would really benefit from the freedom to run between the two yards and houses. Those are lucky kids to grow up that way.

Now to address the special needs issue…After our first au pair was such a mismatch with our family, we now only look at au pairs who are special needs willing (and I do mean some-experience-working-with-special-needs-kids willing…not just I- checked-all-boxes-so-I-can-get-a-family willing). Yes, this does limit our pool of au pairs and I do what I can to expand it by registering with two agencies and giving myself at least 4-6 weeks to find the right au pair for us. Our last au pair was an audiologist who had done a year long internship in a school working with hearing impaired children. This is not my child’s issue (he has severe anxieties about things), but just the fact that she had worked with kids who were not “typical” helped our au pair have the patience and understanding needed to be an au pair for our kids.

That said though, I only expect my au pairs to be warm, friendly, organized, and competent child care providers since my son already goes to a licensed professional therapist twice a week and a group social skills class daily through his special education school. It would be nice to be like this host mom to have an OT living in my house, and it sounds like she needs that for her child. Trust me…I know all too well that everyone’s needs are different, and every host family needs to get the right fit for them when picking an au pair. But I don’t need that level of care from an au pair since my son get his therapeutic needs addressed elsewhere. Also, that is a lot more money to go through that agency than what I want to spend, since so far my two special needs willing au pairs have been from the regular pool of au pairs. It is nice to know that the option is out there for families who need it though.

Dorsi May 30, 2014 at 10:58 am

How much is it? It doesn’t seem like they have their prices online. I have thought in the past that I would spend more for a higher quality of Au Pair, I was just been burned by the extraordinaire program (first flame out AP, of 6 that we hosted).

Amy Massey May 30, 2014 at 11:14 am

Dorsi – It works out to be 30k annually – definitely more expensive than a regular au pair but definitely cheaper than a nanny.

Dorsi May 30, 2014 at 11:31 am

So, the match fee is 18k?

Amy Massey May 30, 2014 at 11:41 am

No – match fee is $3500. Up front cost is app fee $350 plus match fee. It’s a pay as you go method.

Amy Massey May 30, 2014 at 11:43 am

Feel free to contact me directly. My info is in the article.

NJ Mama May 30, 2014 at 12:14 pm

Dorsi –
It’s been several months since I spoke with someone from Pro Aupair but if I remember correctly, the match fee is slightly higher, the au pair’s weekly stipend is higher (maybe $250????) but then you also pay another monthly fee to the agency while you’re au pair is with you. So you’re paying like $1,800/month in addition to the match fee. They do work with schools in Germany I believe and when they get a family’s profile they really seem to work hard to find an au pair with skills that match your child’s needs.

I had two wonderful au pairs, followed by a string of disasters.One of my children has anxiety and other issues (sounds similar to MHM). So I don’t necessarily need someone trained with special needs kids. That said, If we could have afforded Pro AuPair I think we would have done it b/c they just seemed so thoughtful in their approach and I was just soooo gun shy and really fed up with the match/rematch process.

My next AP arrives later this summer so fingers crossed!!!

Skny May 30, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Plus unless it changed (I checked about an year ago), if your match falls thru more than 3mo from arrival (ie Au pair decides to leave your home after 3mo and 2 days) you pay a new match fee (3800) to get a new Au pair. Too risk for me. The Au pair pocket money is also 250 a week. That’s why it amounts to more

Anonymous in CA May 31, 2014 at 3:15 pm

Yes, Pro Au Pair is very expensive. You pay the $3500 matching fee; then you also pay almost $1K per month to the agency, plus what works out to $277 per month to the AP (it’s averaged to a monthly amount of about $1200 per month). So, total cost is $2200 per month, in addition to the $3500 matching fee.

I guess for me I slightly resent that families with SN children are asked to pay so much more for an AP. For two reasons.

1. We already pay so much more for everything else that insurance or the school system doesn’t cover, it really actually irks me that even in this realm too, SN families are asked to pay more if they want to secure skilled chid-care. (Analogously, I also end up paying more when I hire a nanny because I pay above the table, thus I incur the employer portion of payroll taxes, plus the nanny always wants a higher hourly rate becaue of what he/she perceives is less income due to payng taxes on the income.)

2. I also sort of take an issue with the Pro Au Pair system generally (as well as the Extraordinaire model from APIA). The AP program is about a cultural exchange first and foremost. Whether a young adult has decided to go to grad school before or after becoming an AP shouldn’t change the basic tenets of the purpose of the AP program.

That said, I think it’s great that there’s an agency where professionals can secure AP positions that will ultimately be useful to their chosen profession, but that doesn’t mean that host families should pay more for providing a cultural exchange that might be professionaly useful to the AP. They come to us and gain the kind of experience that allows them to return to their countries and secure a really stellar job….the host families are providing the APs with invaluable experience that they probably wouldn’t be getting in their home countries. I feel like that fact is lost and rather than a true culture exchange, more than with the ‘regular’ agencies, with Pro Au Pair and the Extraordinaire program, you’re really hiring an employee, not buying into a cultural exchange. And that sort of makes me sad.

For my family, with unreimbursed therapy expenses hovering at or above $20K per year, Pro Au Pair is prohibitively expensive. I wish it weren’t.

My two cents.

Amy Massey May 31, 2014 at 4:16 pm

Hi Anonymous in CA

It is indeed frustrating that we incur much more cost having a child with SN! Fortunately, I live in a state that is generous in its government and school support. My neighbor Cindy uses PCA hours to afford the weekly AP expense and pays the rest out of pocket.

While AP programs are about being a cultural exchange and I love that, we are all using it or considering it as a childcare solution, aren’t we? Personally, I don’t see it as hiring an employee. But I do see it as a childcare solution!

For Anne (our OT AP) – she wants nothing more than to see how therapy works in the US. Occupational therapy is much more advanced here vs Europe. She volunteers at my twins integrated preschool and shadows all sorts of therapies. She wanted to perfect her English so she can read all the literature relevant to her profession which comes from the US. We travel, cook and laugh together. What about that is not a cultural exchange?

Amy Massey May 30, 2014 at 11:09 am

Hi Multitasking Mom!

I don’t disagree at all! I tell all my au pairs that I just want to be a mom – snuggle, laugh and have fun with my kids. All my son’s therapists ask that I continue X, Y & Z at home (for PT, it’s 30 min of stretching & exercises per day). For OT school, it’s handwriting practice. For ST, it’s working with his augmentative device during dinners, etc. Thankfully, I can outsource this to my OT au pair – who LOVES this stuff – and not harbor any mommy guilt.

Definitely DNA is a HUGE component – emotional intelligence, patience, confidence and happiness. You can’t teach this. But the domain expertise is a massive bonus – dressing, bathing and brushing teeth independently!

I used to do executive recruiting and always told people that this was my most important hire of the year :). Ain’t it true?!?!

Returning HM May 30, 2014 at 11:26 am

We are the exact same as Multitasking HM. After the two years we hired therapists as our APs, we found that a better fit for our family *all around* is to have someone younger and maybe more coachable (less set in “what is the right way” to work with a child with differences, for example). We now hire youngish (21 and under) men or women (we have had two male APs and two female APs since we started having younger APs) and really, really hire for attitude, willingness to take risk, energy, and enthusiasm.

Our son has OT/PT, speech and social skills/sports group weekly each, plus spec ed support at school, so he is getting the therapeuatic intervention he needs from these venues. From our AP, we just need patience, willingness to explain very carefully for a child who processes slowly, and someone super-organized to help a little boy with ADHD keep on top of things. We haven’t found that we need, really, the “specialized care” of a therapist, just someone who is used to/comfortable around difference (whether due to having a sibling with differences or someone close or work experience with people with disabilities) and, most importantly, someone who has extremely high standards for themselves and who WANTS to learn and do a good job.

If we needed more specialized care, I’d probably invest more money (since we spend most of our money on his care anyway!). But there are excellent APs in the regular pool — both of our male APs have been particularly fantastic with our son with SN and we are very hopeful that the next one, arriving this summer, will be as well.

Skny May 30, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Final, as a physical therapist who worked years and spent thousands to get my degree, it does not seem ethical to have a foreign therapist in your house doing work that a licensed PT should be doing. Au pair should be an Au pair, a therapist is a therapist. Just saying

Returning HM May 30, 2014 at 2:08 pm

I can’t imagine anyone thinks that hiring a trained therapist as an AP is going to *replace* the therapy appts. For us, we were hopeful that someone who had a basic understanding of PT would be better able and willing to do the “homework” assigned by our early intervention therapist and SLP. In one case, with our PT, it worked out great. With our other therapist-trained AP, it didn’t work at all as she had a very rigid view of what intervention should look like. My sense is that for parents whose children need a lot of support, having someone who “gets it’ and has a more fundamental understanding of the challenges/interventions may be better able to assist, support, and nurture, rather than “treat,” the child. If someone is looking for other than this (as a way to save money and still get a lot of therapy), then that would be asking too much of the AP, I agree.

exaupair May 30, 2014 at 4:08 pm

This is exactly what I thought, an AP who happens to be a trained therapist shouldn’t be asked of anything beyond regular AP duties. If someone requires a therapist, they need to hire one and pay them accordingly.

Anonymous in CA May 31, 2014 at 3:19 pm

Yes, exactly! It’s about the therapy homework …. exactly the stuff that we the parents are asked to do between therapy sessions, not anything that requires the AP to be a therapist, per se. But the pre-existing understanding of it can be useful (or not, as in the case of the poster who said the AP was really rigid on what she thought intervention should look like).

Amy Massey May 30, 2014 at 2:10 pm

Skny – Our au pair is our au pair :). She attends all of my son’s therapies with him in school and out of school (this is very exciting for her) and then helps implement them with his daily living tasks… just as we all do. She is fantastic! She also spends a lot of time with my 5 year old twin girls. But she has a therapeutic lens – she always does fine motor crafts and sensory games and core exercises. Rest assured, my son has a number of therapists that work with him but our au pair is just as devoted to his success as we are.

Hilly September 16, 2014 at 11:07 am

We are a Massachusetts family with three fantastic kids, one active dog and a Austrian au pair. Our au pair came to us with some experience with special needs kids, and his warmth, sense of play, responsibility and ability to connect with all of our kids has been great. His responsibilities focus around our youngest, who requires fully engaged and upbeat supervision because of her multiple disabilities. Please tell us how to, really the nuts and bolts, use PCA funds for an Au Pair. That info would be a huge help. I love the family to family connection…We are all each others best resources! Thanks so much.

Amy Massey September 16, 2014 at 12:38 pm

Hi Hilly – We do not have Mass Health nor receive PCA hours for my son. My neighbor Cindy’s daughter has CP and receives Mass Health. Once you are registered with Mass Health and ask for personal care assistance, a nurse will come out to assess how many hours your child needs per week (how much toileting assistance, bathing, 1×1, feeding, etc). Cindy and other friends I have in Massachusetts who have children with mobility issues usually receive 25-35 hrs. The state assumes 12/hr. This can go to a relative or whomever you choose. Cindy has had success paying her au pair the weekly stipend with these hours. You cannot use this money toward agency and/or placement fees but you can pay the au pair directly once they attain an SS#. Hope this helps!

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