It began in the way that so many things do, with an irritating little problem and the search for a simple solution.
“Day care wasn’t really working for us,” said Holly Bailey, a chemical engineer.
It was 2010, and she and her husband, John Kennedy Bailey, had two young sons. Sick days were a challenge. So were snow days, summer breaks and holidays. Then came the final straw, a minor disagreement with their day care center over the kind of shoes Brooks, then 1, needed to wear.
It was all “very bureaucratic,” said John, an attorney and Charleston city councilman.
Fast-forward to 2019.
“It is interesting,” he said, “the whole cause and effect of the universe. Like, the shoe problem ... and then all of this happens.”
He gestured to his unusual family gathered around the table.
“There are people who are alive now who would not otherwise be.”
And, Charleston’s millennial population would be smaller by four.
About 20 companies are authorized to participate in the U.S. government’s au pair program, which places international visitors with American families in need of child care. It’s overseen by the U.S. Department of State and requires a student visa and a lengthy screening process.
When the Baileys first considered hiring an au pair for their older son, Jack, in 2006, there were no companies serving the Charleston area. But a few years later, after the shoe incident, that had changed.
“One company — I really need to give them a plug — is called Go Au Pair,” John said.
“I said, ‘Would you place an au pair in Charleston, West Virginia?’ They said ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘West Virginia?’”
He emphasized the state very carefully, to be sure there was no confusion with that other Charleston.
“And they said, ‘Yes, we can do that.’ And so it suddenly became an option again.”
The process is easy, slightly more than the cost of having two children in day care, but extensive. A company in each country approved for U.S. au pairs finds candidates and handles the initial screening. Then the company works with a company in this country to match candidates to families. They check backgrounds and medical histories, and test for English proficiency.
“They even have a requirement that you have a Skype call, so you can see face to face,” Holly said.
Still, just like with a dating service, it’s up to both parties to find a good match. Holly and John wanted someone over 21 who could drive, and who had been away from home before.
“We took pains to explain in our profile that Charleston is not New York. Charleston is not Los Angeles, California. Charleston is not something you have seen in a movie about the United States,” John said.
It was important that “they not have the expectation that we live two blocks off Times Square and our neighbor was Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie or anything like that,” he added.
Both John and Holly were a little nervous. They had a private, third-floor bedroom with a private bath, but still — they hadn’t had roommates since college. Ultimately, they decided that the minimum six-month commitment was worth the risk.
“We found out on Bastille Day [July 14, 2010] that we could do it, and on the 14th of August I’m picking up Isabelle from Pittsburgh,” Holly said.
Isabelle Bournigault’s journey to West Virginia was a bumpy one.
She was born in Paris and raised in the Bordeaux region, famous for its wine production. She studied phonetics at the university there, then got a master’s in linguistics from Paris Diderot University before beginning a Ph.D. program in linguistics, studying how to connect with children through voice.
By 2009, things weren’t going so well. Funding for her doctorate had fallen through. She had broken up with her boyfriend, was juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet and was ready for a change.
The idea of becoming an au pair was appealing for many reasons: She liked children, and she needed to improve her English language skills to find a good job.
“So I said, ‘Let’s go there. It’s a cheap way to go, it’s an easy way to learn. And after that I can find a job,’” Isabelle said.
She’d never been on an airplane before and had to get a passport. Her first family placement, in Pittsburgh, was a difficult experience that ended abruptly. She had two weeks to find a new placement or be sent back home.
The Baileys saw her profile and thought she might be a good fit — and she felt the same way.
“It was just a connection through the description, the pictures,” she said. “They put love in the education of their children, and I felt that.”
Also, “They had a white cat, too. I had a white cat,” she said. “John always says, ‘You came because of Snowball.’”
Quickly, she realized how her fortune had turned. For starters, their home on the East End made it easy to be independent without a car.
But more than that, the experience was “the one you dream about when you want to be an au pair,” she said. “They considered me as a member of their family right away.”
They allowed her to pick out furniture for her bedroom and bathroom, and they helped paint the room the color of her choice. She had meals with the family most nights and was included in trips and holidays.
She was also intrigued by Mountaineer Montessori, where Jack and Brooks — and eventually their baby sister, Lisette — all attended school.
“I was doing some reading about how to engage children,” she said. “And I got captivated, fascinated, by all the materials and this approach to learning.”
Jack “loved school, and his teacher was so awe-inspiring. I looked at her and thought, ‘I wish one day I could be just like her.’”
As it turned out, she would be.
Isabelle stayed with the Baileys for a year, then had to leave after she turned 26. She returned to Paris in 2011, then landed in New York for a time — but big cities, she said, are expensive, polluted and stressful. She missed working with children. She also missed the Baileys, whom she visited every year.
And, she missed Charleston.
“I question myself, ‘Why am I happy here?’ And then I found out that happiness is simple, and I think that’s why I’m liking it here, because it’s so simple. It’s convenient, it’s close to nature and I think nature gives you an energy. Before I can say when I was in Paris, you don’t see the sky.”
But finding her way back was hard. She landed a job teaching French in Russia, and worked with a little boy she believes had special learning needs. It was there that she realized the value of a Montessori system, which guides children in learning through their own interests. She completed an intensive, nine-month Montessori training program in Canada, just in time to fill in for one of the primary teachers on maternity leave at MMS in January 2018.
“I was so happy. It was my dream,” she said. “I told the family, ‘Eight years it took me to finally get it, and I was so happy that I just followed my heart. Even if it took me to the opposite side of Earth, like Russia, I was following my path and my path took me back here.”
As you might imagine, that temporary job turned into a permanent position, and Isabelle is now the Primary II Guide at MMS. Meanwhile, the Baileys still needed an au pair. But could they find someone as wonderful for their family as Isabelle had been?
Ramona Jefferson was living in her homeland, Romania, in 2011, and was looking for a program abroad so she could travel and improve her English skills. She was matched with the Baileys and thought they seemed like a good fit.
“I studied French, and they both speak French,” she said.
Still, she didn’t plan to stay in Charleston.
“I thought it was really small, and there’s not a lot to do. That was kind of hard,” she said.
John and Holly both worked to connect her to people her own age. As she began to make friends, things started to feel better. It’s not how many people you meet, she learned, but meeting the right people — including a certain air traffic controller while she was out with friends in late 2012.
“We met in December, and my visa expired in April,” she said. “I was planning to go to France or Italy, and he said, ‘I think you should stay.’”
He proposed at the end of February.
“We got married two weeks later,” she said. “I knew it was crazy, but sometimes crazy things work out, and this has worked out pretty nicely.”
The newlyweds moved away briefly, then moved back to Charleston where their daughter, Claire, was born in November 2018. In addition to becoming a wife and a mom, Ramona has also become a U.S. citizen.
Martina Davis Guthrie was from the Czech Republic and had worked as an au pair in England and Ireland before landing with the Bailey family in 2014.
“I wanted to learn better English, see the world, travel,” she said.
She thought she might head next to Australia. Finding a husband was not part of the plan. But then, walking down Capitol Street with friends in December of that year, she started talking to a guy. They exchanged phone numbers and one thing led to another.
“In 2016, we got married,” she said with a smile. Besides a husband, she has things that weren’t on her list a few short years ago: a baby, a house and a green card.
She recently became the Local Area Representative for Go Au Pair, working to place au pairs with families in and around West Virginia.
Getting married effectively ends an au pair assignment. So once again, the Baileys needed a new au pair. This time, they got feedback from numbers one, two and three, who vetoed the family’s first choice. One of her photos showed her in a bikini with a glass of something, so they dubbed her a party girl.
“When I spoke to her, she said she wanted to travel, see the beach. There was nothing about children,” Martina said.
“We liked Alina,” Isabelle said.
Alina Zhudkova is from Ukraine and had worked with children as a tutor and a teacher. She wanted to experience life in America, she said, where everything is different, even the view of life.
“Here they are doing sports at 30, at 40, at 50 years old,” she said. “And in Ukraine, this is just for the young people.”
People in the U.S. use cars more, and Christmas is very different, too. It was her first time to travel by plane, and she hasn’t been homesick so much as “people sick” — missing her family terribly, but not the world in which they live.
“My country has a really difficult stage right now,” she said. “Things are very hard there,” following a revolution and ongoing conflict.
During the Skype interview with the Baileys, she said, Jack made her feel especially comfortable.
“I thought, ‘I want to work with this kid. I think we could get along.’”
She was 25 when she arrived in Charleston, and could only continue in the program until she turned 27. But she learned a few months into her time as an au pair that she could apply for asylum — and that would allow her to work here legally until a decision was made. She applied in November 2016 and is waiting for interviews that will help determine the status of her application.
Meanwhile, she’s working as a financial analyst at City National Bank.
Four au pairs. Four new Charleston residents. And one family that has grown in ways they never expected.
“We just learned all these different cultures,” Holly said. “We learned different languages. My kids know where, at a young age, Romania is on a world map, and the Czech Republic. And my kids realize there’s more to this world than Charleston, West Virginia or even the United States. So to me, that’s a benefit.”
With all three children in school full time, they no longer need an au pair, “So now I have this idea that we could get an exchange student,” she said.
She still comes home to find all four of her former au pairs gathered around her dining room table or sitting on the porch and sharing a bottle of wine or a snack — and while not everyone would be OK with that, it works just fine for the Baileys.
Who’s been their favorite au pair?
“Oh, no,” John said, with a laugh. “We’re not doing that. They’re all just a part of the family. We’re just very flattered and a little amazed that after living with us they still like being around us. And while they could live lots of other places, they all still chose Charleston.”
There have been challenges along the way, of course. Cars that have broken down. Potato chips that have gone missing.
Martina’s husband, “is about to be deployed,” she said, looking around the table. “But it’s OK, I have my family.”
“We have our family here,” Isabelle said. “Our crazy, crazy family.”