Coming to Iola during the pandemic was quite an adventure

Riccardo Barbarossa, of Italy, thought he was going to study in Oregon, but the school closed for online-only learning. An Iola family quickly stepped up to welcome him.



September 11, 2020 - 3:19 PM

Riccardo Barbarossa at the home of Mike and Erin Splechter. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Finding a place to play soccer helped Riccardo Barbarossa, a student from Italy, feel at home in Iola. 

Fortunately, he didn’t need to go any farther than the spacious yard outside the home of his host family of Mike and Erin Splecter.

In the absence of a school soccer program, Riccardo looks forward to trying his hand at basketball.

His interest in sports already has allowed him to meet a couple of his peers. He’s already played a pickup game of basketball with two IHS students who live nearby. 

When he starts classes at IHS Monday, Riccardo is counting on those connections to show him the ropes.

Coming to Iola has already been quite an adventure.

In fact, Riccardo never expected to come to Kansas at all.

He’s wanted to study as a foreign exchange student in the U.S. for three years, since he was 14. Several of his friends at home had studied in the U.S., and he’s watched many documentaries that stoked his interest in the country.

This year was a difficult time for international travel because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Riccardo initially matched with a family in Oregon. His paperwork and visa were complete, and his international flight scheduled when he learned the school in Oregon would be online only. That wouldn’t allow him to have a true “study abroad” experience, so the program quickly searched for a new family.

Mike and Erin Splechter learned about Riccardo’s plight on a Wednesday and decided to take him in. They were approved the following Sunday, and Riccardo arrived about a week later.

“It all kind of worked out,” Erin said.

The Splechters had never really considered hosting an exchange student before. But once they thought about it, the idea appealed to them. 

“It’s a good opportunity to see differences in cultures,” Erin said. “Just the other day, we were in the car talking about the government. Riccardo feels about his government in Italy the same way I feel about our government.”

Not all of their discussions are quite that deep, though.

For example, Riccardo recently expressed his desire for biscuits.

Mike, eager to please, offered to go to the store to buy biscuits. Erin stopped him.

“Riccardo’s biscuits are way different than our biscuits,” Mike realized.

In Europe, a “biscuit” is what Americans would consider a cookie.

RICCARDO quickly realized that things in the U.S. would be a bit different than back home.

He’s from a city of about 100,000 people in a region of about 1 million. 

He was surprised to see the wide open spaces and fields in Kansas, with big houses and big yards. 

The Splechter family is diverse and multi-generational, too. Mike and Erin have four children: Alana, 13; Kinsley, 7; Kaden, 4; and Reed, 9 months. Erin’s mother, Donna Mader, also lives with them.

“She’s a better cook than me, right?” Erin asked Riccardo. He was reluctant to answer.

His own family is much smaller. In addition to his parents, he has an older brother. 

Having a foreign student will be good for their family, Erin said. She wants her children to learn about different cultures.

Riccardo is looking forward to improving his English and making friends. 

“I want to have fun and grow,” he said. 

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