German au pair Rico Baumgardt, 21, holds 1-year-old Owen Hertl affectionately. Their time together grows short as the au pair will soon leave his host family’s Edmonds home after a year’s stay. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

German au pair Rico Baumgardt, 21, holds 1-year-old Owen Hertl affectionately. Their time together grows short as the au pair will soon leave his host family’s Edmonds home after a year’s stay. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

In Edmonds home, German au pair became as close as family

“We really are forever changed,” says mother of two whose baby son needs tube feeding and extra care.

Rico Baumgardt will soon say goodbye to his host family. He’ll leave Leah and Nick Hertl’s Edmonds home, and his yearlong job watching over their two beautiful children. Bundles of energy, 4-year-old Bianca and 1½-year-old Owen took turns Monday sharing the attention of their German au pair.

It won’t really be goodbye when Baumgardt, 21, returns to his homeland Feb. 7. The bonds are too strong. Already, Baumgardt is making plans for when the Hertl family visits him.

Leah Hertl said there’s no question about staying in touch.

“I expect Rico will be part of our lives for the rest of our lives. We have a global family,” said the 36-year-old mother, whose husband’s father was born in Germany. “Our home is Rico’s home. Both Bianca and Owen find comfort in Rico.”

Sitting with the blond tots, Baumgardt said “don’t make me cry.” He’ll miss his adopted U.S. family, but can’t wait to meet his sister’s second child back home, and taste his mother’s cooking. “I wrote my mom a whole list” of foods he’s missed here — schnitzel is a favorite.

An au pair (French for “equal to” or “at par”) is a young adult, proficient in English, who comes from another country to stay with an American family for up to two years. They provide child care and get a weekly stipend from the family, plus room and board. With a J-1 Visa, also called an Exchange Visitor visa, an au pair’s participation in the program is overseen by the U.S. State Department, which sets work rules. The child care job is for up to 45 hours per week.

Baumgardt’s stay was arranged by Massachusetts-based Cultural Care Au Pair, one of more than a dozen agencies the State Department has designated to administer the visa program.

Earlier this month, Baumgardt was named among 15 finalists chosen by Cultural Care for its 2020 Au Pair of the Year Award. Hundreds were nominated. In the end he wasn’t the winner, but he certainly is in the eyes of the Hertl family.

“He arrived during a particularly challenging year for our family due to our infant son’s unforeseen medical issues,” Leah Hertl wrote in her nomination letter for the award. “Rico never blinked twice. He dove in head-first and instantly became a calm, capable, stable member of our family while offering reasons to laugh along the way.”

Owen was born in May 2018 with a cleft lip and cleft palate, requiring multiple surgeries. He has a swallowing disorder, and is tube fed.

On Monday, baby Owen lifted his shirt to show the gastronomy button, or food port, on his tummy. Rico has been part of the effort to get him to try eating by mouth — which is a goal, his mother said.

“The bond between Rico and both of our children is difficult to put into words,” Hertl wrote. “He was the breath of fresh air we needed that brought life and laughter back into our home.”

She said Baumgardt supported the family through medical appointments and Owen’s third surgery. “Rico faced the unknown with such courage and optimism, two characteristics that I can only hope my children will carry with them for the rest of their lives,” she wrote.

The family also has a part-time nanny, particularly to assist with Owen’s medical issues. That helper, Meghan Luiz, plans to graduate from an Edmonds Community College nursing program in June.

“Rico and Meghan have made our life feel so normal,” said Hertl, who put her human resources career on hold after their daughter was born.

Those extra sets of hands have been invaluable, she said. The need to pump breast milk for Owen has taken countless hours. Owen also receives in-home care, with visits from speech and occupational therapists and a dietician.

Hertl’s husband works in the technology field in Seattle, and Bianca attends preschool there several days a week.

Already, they’re in the process of finding another au pair.

Soon, they’ll miss how “Rico does Owen’s bedtime routine in German, and his German baking,” Hertl said.

Baumgardt is about to start his new life in Berlin. First he’ll reunite with his family in Groß Thurow, their tiny town in northern Germany. He graduated from high school in 2016, had an apprenticeship with a logistics company, and plans to attend a university. He sees a possible career in marketing.

His boyfriend, Philipp, visited him in Edmonds, and Baumgardt had time to travel while here — to Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Hawaii and British Columbia.

“He is ready to go home,” Hertl said.

“I have really mixed feelings about leaving,” Baumgardt said. “Bianca and I have been talking about what to show her in Berlin. She wants to go to the zoo.”

“It’s family, not just friendship,” Hertl said. “He’s seen us at our best and at our worst, accepted us and helped us grow. We really are forever changed.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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