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HELP : Baby-sitters: The British have a special day for nannies. But in America, appreciation can be shown in new cars, health insurance and paid sick time.


Dale Bell wasn't looking for a miracle. Just a nice, responsible person to take care of her kids.

But a gold miner in a sluiced-out creek bed would have had better luck.

"I must have gone through every teen-ager in the neighborhood. We even tried a professional nanny and didn't hit it off," said Bell, an Agoura mother with children ages 12, 9 and 5.

"One time, we came home at 1 a.m. and there was our youngest, sitting in front of the television. Another time we came home and the kids had gotten so fed up that they had locked the sitter outside. By the end, my husband and I were thinking we just wouldn't go out at night anymore."

But when a Camarillo domestic agency sent over a bright, creative woman with a Mary Poppin-esque bag of books, beads, glue and glitter, it was no wonder that Bell felt as if she wanted to kiss the doormat where the woman stood.

"She does all these incredible art projects, and the kids absolutely love her," Bell said. "Now I just do everything I can to make sure she keeps coming back.

"I overpay her every week. I get her daughter presents. I give her a lot of gifts. I'll do anything I can. My attitude is, 'What can I offer you?' "

Bell, of course, isn't the first person to think about showing appreciation to her domestic help.

A long time ago, the terribly decent British decided to set aside an entire day each year, just so they could express their affection for their servants. In the original spirit of Boxing Day--now celebrated throughout the British Isles on Dec. 26--members of the English nobility would repackage their unwanted presents and pass them on to their very grateful help.

Although the holiday is largely unknown in the United States, there nevertheless are plenty of people who believe that Americans have their own way of showing appreciation to people who work in their homes. The only difference is that a lot of parents here say they try to show it 365 days a year.

Nannies are given new cars. Housekeepers are offered health insurance. Au pairs receive round-trip tickets to their native countries for a vacation. Baby-sitters are given paid sick time. Maids get tuition for school. After-school mothers' helpers receive clothes and jewelry.

"The pool of talent out there really isn't that great, and so when you find someone really good, you want to hang onto them," said Susan Nardizzi, an advertising company supervisor who lives in Moorpark. "You want to do everything you can."

What prompts parents to provide so many perks to their domestic help can vary from gratitude and feelings of friendship to fear of having to look for a replacement. But many parents said it takes at least one bad experience to make them realize how much they depend on the good people working for them.

Nardizzi, who works in Los Angeles, had initially sought a live-in nanny for her 1-year-old fraternal twins through an international organization based in Oakland, but she changed her mind when she learned how expensive it was. Although she said she was willing to pay for room, board, health insurance and what she considered to be a good salary, the organization also wanted her to buy a car for the nanny's use.

"I work for one of the largest advertising agencies," she said, "and I don't think my secretary makes that after taxes."

Nardizzi wound up contacting a Ventura domestic agency, which sent her a woman who didn't work out. The woman had a drinking problem, Nardizzi said, and put the children to bed during the day so she could sleep. The children then stayed up all night.

"I don't think there's anything more stressful than being in a high-power job and having a lot of demands on you, and then feeling like your children aren't being taken care of," Nardizzi said.

After three weeks, the agency sent over another woman who Nardizzi said is working out fine. She is responsible and caring, and she cooks dinner even though it is not requested.

"I found myself saying in the back of my mind, 'I should pay her even more,' " Nardizzi said. "I don't ever want her to feel that I am taking advantage of her. I think people will bend over backwards to get that peace of mind."

How far will they bend? Richard Francis, a former Ventura mayor and father of 1-year-old twins, says he will go pretty far.

After interviewing a long string of prospective nannies, Francis and his wife Nancy, a county Planning Department manager, settled on 22-year-old Denise Vikingson. The couple initially had hoped to find a "grandmotherly type," but decided that chasing after the twins might be a bit too much for an older person.

Vikingson, who eventually wants to become director of a child-care center, had the energy level and dedication the couple wanted.

"I think just the fact that someone comes into your home makes you a lot more susceptible to being giving than with a regular employee," Francis said.

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