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Czech mates

Carl Richey and Czech student Daniel White make most of visit

SOLON– “I told my parents, let’s do this,” Carl Richey said when he saw the flier posted at school last fall.
It described an opportunity to participate in a summer exchange program sponsored by the Czech Heritage Foundation.
High school students of Czech, Moravian or Slovak ancestry living within 100 miles of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City were eligible to apply to the Foundation’s Homestay program, which has awarded 55 scholarships since it began in 1983.
Students selected as “Ambassadors” would travel to the Czech Republic to spend three weeks living with a host family in the town of Hradec Králové and then would reciprocate by hosting a Czech student from that family later the same summer.
Richey submitted his application, including a brief essay about why he would be a good candidate for the program. He made the short list of five Solon High School students selected to interview for the two available slots to be filled, one girl and one boy.
“At the time, I didn’t think the Czech program would conflict with too many other things I was doing,” said Richey. As is turned out, however, the interview date coincided with another important activity. “I wasn’t able to go in for the interview because I was going to tryouts for Jazz SEIBA (Southeastern Iowa Band Association),” he recalled. Richey is a dedicated tenor saxophone player.
But that was not to be the end of Carl’s involvement with the Czech student exchange program.
During English class last spring, Richey noticed his friend Delaney Conrad, using Czech flash cards to study the language. She’d been chosen for the exchange trip. Conrad told Richey another family was needed to host one of the Czech students coming to Solon in the summer. She put him in touch with the coordinator of the exchange program and ultimately, Carl’s family offered to host Daniel White, a Czech student, scheduled to arrive in Solon the third week in August.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in Hradec Králové, Daniel White met with some unforeseen challenges as he prepared to host another of Richey’s classmates and plan his trip to Solon.
“It was Brennan Bell that stayed with me, but from his side it was a little bit more complicated because of the time change and school and work,” recalled White.
“On top of that I had to have an unexpected eye surgery. I had a detached retina,” he said. “The recovery of that was longer than I expected. I got out of the hospital only four days before Brennan showed up.”
“So I had to mostly be laying down with the eye. I couldn’t do that much,” White said. “I only took him to school twice and it was only for a little while, so he didn’t have much of the school experience like I did here. But we did what we could, we took trips and stuff like that. It wasn’t ideal, but it was manageable.”
White’s doctor monitored his recovery from eye surgery through weekly checkups at the hospital. During that period, White wasn’t sure if he would actually make it to Solon. “I was supposed to stay (in Solon) for three weeks and fly out on Aug. 19 along with two other girls,” he said. “But the doctor said that I can’t fly then, because I can’t fly for two months after the operation.
“I was having doubts if they would let me fly at all. I had the final check up three days before I was supposed to fly and that was going to be the definitive yes or no,” said White. Luckily, his mom managed to reschedule his flight for a week later once the doctor affirmed his eye was healed well enough for him to fly.
White’s visit to Solon and the Richey-Steinbrech household started off in a whirlwind. He arrived mid-day on Friday, Aug. 25, while Richey and his brother Edward were at school and their parents were at work. Nonetheless, three generations of Steinbrechs were waiting at the house to greet White upon his arrival: Richey’s grandmother, Nargi Steinbrech and her son Ken (Richey’s uncle), along with his son. After brief introductions, they whisked White off to Solon High School to meet Richey in person and have lunch with Klára Petrásková, the other Czech student from White’s school.
So began what White described as a crash course in the American high school. He admitted it was a little overwhelming at first.
But according to Richey, “He did a great job of handling it all.”
The ensuing week was packed with activities. On White’s first full day in Solon, Carl took him for a walk in the Solon Recreation and Nature Area and then out to the Coralville Dam. Later in the day, they attended the cross country meet at Prairie High School, where Richey made his first run of the season on the varsity team. After, they went golfing, a first-time experience for White.
“Carl said he did really well,” noted his mom, Angie Steinbrech.
White was also able to spend a day with Richey’s classmate Brennan Bell, who took him to the Czech and Slovak Museum and Library (CSML) and the Czech Village, in Cedar Rapids. Because the exchange program was sponsored by the Czech Heritage Foundation, White knew about the unique history of Czech settlement in Cedar Rapids, but he didn’t expect to find such an extensive celebration of his heritage. “The history and the way that they present it and teach it there, it’s very well done,” he said of the CSML. “I recommend it to everyone.”
Since both Delaney Conrad and Brennan Bell, the two Solon students who’d travelled to Hradec Králové in July, attended classes at Kirkwood, White and his Czech classmate Klara shadowed Richey at Solon for most of the day. “We had classes such as English 11, wood shop, a lot of these more fun classes, because I had gotten my core classes out of the way,” Richey said.
“I think all the classes that I went to were pretty good,” said White. “My favorite was the wood shop class. Theatre was also fun. I definitely learned something from each class I went to.”
“The wood shop class was actually new this year, because of the new auditorium,” noted Richey. “Keith Düster does the sets there. He has us doing these projects such as working the lighting and the sound, and it’s great chance to work in a professional environment that most schools, even colleges, don’t have.”
White explained while classes like wood shop are not offered at his school, there are high schools that specialize in training for trades, such as carpentry. “There’s another school, close to ours, and it’s the industrial art school,” he said. “So you can learn different things. There’s the more artistic side of it like painting, they teach that. Or the one that I like is the carving, but an artsy carving. It’s like the art and the manual work kind of combined. I like that.”
Asked what he perceived to be the greatest differences between his high school at home and Solon, White remarked on the size and the number of activities available to students.
“Czech and European schools focus mostly just on academics. If you want to play sports or learn music on a higher level, you go to a separate music school or football club,” White elaborated. “I go to a music school to learn how to play guitar. And just his past year, I started taking singing lessons, as well.”
Before his family moved back to Solon in 2014, Richey attended a school in Vermont that had a similar focus on academics and offered very little in the way of sports and performing arts. “There wasn’t a football team or marching band. We had choir, but nothing was done on a very professional level like they have here,” Richey added. “So when I came here, it was like carpe diem, I’m doing all of this. I went right on the cross country team, I did the marching band, tried that all out.”
Along with accompanying Richey to an impromptu teen party, White got the chance to experience a Solon football game. Since Richey was in marching band, White sat with him and fellow band members during the game on Sept. 1.
“I didn’t really watch much of the game,” White confessed. “It was mostly about socializing. And very nice to see especially all the stuff they did before the game like the marches and the music and the honoring of the generals.”
“It was soldiers’ night so we didn’t do our performance like we normally do with formations,” Richey explained. “We just went out there and did the national anthem, went back to the stands and came back out to do the service songs. It was a Veterans Day celebration. It was a commemoration of Harvey, too.”
White found it interesting it was not only the players celebrating at the game, “It was a whole community thing.”
Reflecting on his overall homestay experience with the Steinbrechs in Solon, White described some photos he saw posted on the Instagram feed of a third exchange student from his school. Within less than a week, she’d been to the state fair in Minneapolis, St. Louis and Chicago.
“So she’s been all over the place. For her, it’s probably been more of a sightseeing trip, which is great,” he observed. “But I’ve had more of a learning trip, like a culture trip– like see how an American family and kids my age, how people work, like how some things are the same and some things are different. I think that’s more valuable than sightseeing. I can do that on my own. It was definitely more of a learning experience for me. I value that.”