March 1, 2022

Health Policy’s Sheelah Blankenship’s family named “Ultimate Host Family” by cultural exchange agency

The program, overseen by the U.S. State Department, allows young adults from other countries to live with an American family as an au pair

Sheela Blankenship of VUMC Health Policy, right, and her husband Caleb with Juana Valentina Garzon Tamayo, who holds twins Andre and Mat.

Juana Valentina Garzon Tamayo, a young woman from Colombia, came to live with the family of Sheelah Blankenship, a clinical research coordinator in the Department Health Policy, last June.

Garzon Tamayo participates in a cultural exchange program overseen by the U.S. State Department which allows young adults from other countries to obtain a legal J-1 Visa and work up to 45 hours a week (paid, of course), and have the opportunity to live with an American family as an au pair, caring for children.

She arrived at a perfect time for the Blankenships.

Sheelah Blankenship found out she was pregnant just as the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in late 2019. Hunkering down during the pandemic, she and her husband, Caleb, welcomed their twin boys, Andre and Mat, on July 27, 2020.

Blankenship began working remotely as the pandemic worsened. Caleb, a software engineer, also works from home.

Like many parents suddenly juggling jobs and in their case, newborns, at home, she and Caleb struggled to find good child care during a turbulent time.

Blankenship heard about an organization called AuPairCare from another mother of twins on the “Twin Moms of Middle Tennessee” Facebook group. AuPairCare is a U.S. Department of State designated agency that works with prospective au pairs and host families. Is is not endorsed by VUMC.

As part of the au pair experience in the U.S., au pairs are required to take at least six credit hours of college classes each year they are in the program. Garzon Tamayo, who has a bachelor’s degree in international business, chose to take advanced English college classes.

“We were having a hard time finding a caregiver, someone who could be flexible with us and also able to handle twins. It was a really rough time,” Blankenship said. “I had never heard of an au pair or knew what one was. We checked out the program, my husband thought it sounded like a great idea, and we signed on.”

It has been a great match.

The Blankenships were recently named the 2021 Ultimate Host Family by AuPairCare after being nominated by Garzon Tamayo. They nominated her as the Ultimate Au Pair.

Au pairs are recruited to the program from 40 different countries and undergo a comprehensive screening process. To be eligible to host an au pair, families must be U.S. citizens or a legal permanent resident with a green card, speak English as the primary language in the home, pass a criminal background check and commit to at least a year of the au pair’s employment.

Prior to selecting Garzon Tamayo, the Blankenships read through profiles of several au pairs listed for employment on AuPairCare’s website. Blankenship knew when she read Garzon Tamayo’s bio that she would be a perfect fit for the family.

“She sounded really sweet and positive. I liked her profile, and we instantly connected with her,” Blankenship said. They sent Garzon Tamayo a message via the website’s platform, then they spoke with her a few times before committing. “We asked her to come and stay with us, and luckily, she liked us too,” Blankenship said.

Taking care of children comes naturally for Garzon Tamayo, Blankenship said. “She has 10 nieces and nephews. She’s helped her family raise kids, so she was no stranger to dealing with being outnumbered.”

Blankenship said Garzon Tamayo blended into their family flawlessly. “It’s been great. The boys love her, and she’s become part of our family. The boys listen to her more than us,” she said, laughing. “She runs a tight ship.”

Garzon Tamayo eats dinner with the family every night, and they watch TV together and hang out on the weekends. “It’s kind of like having a teenage daughter in a way,” Blankenship said.

And what’s in it, besides a paycheck, for Garzon Tamayo?

As part of the au pair experience in the U.S., au pairs are required to take at least six credit hours of college classes each year they are in the program. Garzon Tamayo, who has a bachelor’s degree in international business, chose to take advanced English college classes.

“Juana really wants to learn to speak English well,” Blankenship said. “She thinks this immersion in an English-speaking country will be really useful, and she wants to learn how to be independent and live on her own. This was her first time away from home.”

In her contest essay about her host family, Garzon Tamayo said she “was waiting for this experience my whole life.” She said she told the Blankenships before coming to the United States that she was nervous about her decision. “It was my first time out of the country, and they told me it was a great experience, and I was very brave to take this opportunity,” she wrote.

“Since I’ve arrived here, they’ve welcomed me into their home with a lot of love and made me part of their family,” she wrote. “They take my opinion into account in everything. This is the best experience in my life…they should win because great people deserve great things. They’re my angels here and I’ve felt at home, and I know they will be my second family forever and I can always count on them.”

Garzon Tamayo went on to say in her nomination that the Blankenships have embraced her roots and have taken her to Plaza Mariachi in Nashville for Latin dancing and sought out a Colombian food truck where they let her choose home favorites for the family to try.

“They’ve done a lot of things to make me feel at home, and I love that…I can talk to them about any topic without feeling uncomfortable. I love our relationship and they’re the best host family!”

Blankenship said she and her husband were touched by Garzon Tamayo’s words. “She’s just the sweetest. We thought it was really nice what she wrote about us,” she said.

The Blankenships have asked Garzon Tamayo to stay with them for another year, once she completes her first year with them in June.  Garzon Tamayo has said she will.

“I want to extend with them because I feel that I still have a lot to learn from them and their culture, as well as they still need to know a little more about my culture and my family. If everything goes well, my family will come to visit me this year or next. Also, I feel very good here, like home, and that’s what makes me continue living this experience that has been the best of my life.”