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Rob Brothers sits at the head of a table full of friends and his extended family while visiting Italy. For 45 years, since Patricia Henriquez first came as an exchange student to the United States in 1972, the families have stayed in touch. The Brothers have now hosted three generations of the family as exchange students. (Courtesy Brothers family) John and Lois Murray (back row center) hosted Patricia Henriquez (front row, fifth from left) from Chile in 1972. Henriquez stayed close to the family, particularly daughter Becky (back row, second from right). Other siblings include Ann (back row, from left), David, Lynn, Kelly, Jill (front row, from left), Elaine, Amy, Dana, Shannon, Chris and Beth. (Courtesy Brothers family)

Two Catholic families keep up exchange for generations

Patricia Henriquez visted U.S. 45 years ago; her daughter and granddaughter did the same

Published: September 11, 2017      
Alesia Schaefer
Becky (left) and Rob (right) Brothers, parishioners of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers, spend an evening on their porch practicing English with Josefa Michelini of Italy. Michelini is the third generation who has visited the Brothers family since her grandmother came to the United States 45 years ago.

ROGERS — Over the years, the term “extended family” has taken on new meaning for Rob and Becky Brothers and their children.

On this sunny morning, the couple sits at their kitchen table with 15-year-old Josefa Michelini, of Italy, chatting in English and recounting the beginning of a story.

The story has several characters and chapters and Michelini listens intently, translating in her mind and asking questions when she does not understand. She seems to enjoy hearing the series of events that providentially brought her to Rogers for the summer.

But more than that, it is a story that illustrates how individuals can come together by chance, but look beyond differences to find a common ground.

“I remember the sacrifices my parents made to host an exchange student even with all of the children of their own. I don’t think they had any idea how far reaching this would be ...” Becky Brothers

For the Brothers, it’s a story that reminds them of love shown and seeds scattered through the years to create a friendship that has bridged the continents. Now in the retelling, it is friends that have become family in a connection that has spanned three generations.

It all began with a friendship that developed 45 years ago.

Back in 1972, Becky Brothers, then Becky Murray, was a junior at McAuley Catholic High School in Joplin, Mo., when her parents decided to host an exchange student from Chile. The student, Patricia Henriquez, came to stay with the family for 10 months as an exchange student through the Youth for Understanding (YFU) organization. Even then, Becky had no idea that a friendship formed in high school would blossom into a bond she and her own family would treasure for generations.

As the years went on, both young women married and started families of their own, but Henriquez never completely lost touch with her American family. She wanted for her children the same experience she had as a young girl and so reached out to the family she once had stateside. 

In so doing, Henriquez set off a chain of events that has since kept the families in touch.

In 1993, Becky and Rob, who had also been a classmate of Henriquez, hosted Henriquez’s daughter, Kathia, as a YFU exchange student at Rogers High School. In 1999, the Brothers, with their two daughters in tow, traveled to Chile to attend the wedding of Kathia and her fiancé, Fernando Michelini.

The next year, in 2000, Katie, a daughter of Rob and Becky, traveled to Chile to spend three months practicing her Spanish and learning the culture. When Katie married in 2005, not only did the families come from Italy and Chile to attend as guests, but Fernando Michelini walked Katie down the aisle with Rob as evidence of the strong bond between the two families.

The Brothers also made a visit with friends to Italy in 2016 and spent time seeing their extended family and touring the country. Meanwhile, Michelini’s cousin Montserrat Flores came to Arkansas and stayed with the Brothers’ daughter, now Katie Creed, and her family, that same year.

The arrival of Patricia’s granddaughter, Josefa Michelini, this summer, has carried the familial ties almost full circle.

“I never imagined this could have happened,” said Becky. “I don’t even think my mother knew the impact this relationship would have on our family through the generations.”

“I remember the sacrifices my parents made to host an exchange student even with all of the children of their own,” she said. “I don’t think they had any idea how far reaching this would be after they were gone.”

Parishioners at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers since 1979, the Brothers have lived and raised their family in the area for almost 40 years. Rob, an aspirant for the diaconate in the Diocese of Little Rock, gives a lot of credit to the matriarchal nature of Patricia, the first exchange student in 1972, for keeping the relationship thriving.

“She facilitated so much of this for her daughters and granddaughters and wanted them to experience what she was able to experience,” he said.

Michelini’s time in the United States this summer was filled with trying different foods, traveling to Dallas, Kansas City, Tulsa, St. Louis and Little Rock, going to the lake and shopping.

“When I return to Italy, I will tell people about my time with Rob and Becky and their family and the people I met and how friendly they were,” Michelini said.

“I think the exchange experience has helped us to experience the people, culture and language, but when you visit one another’s countries, you see there is much more that unites us than separates us,” Rob said.

“I think God has shown us that our extended family is more widespread,” Becky said.

“My vision of family has not changed,” Rob added, “Our family has just gotten bigger … We now have an international extended family.”

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