At the end of a rocky Jeep ride across miles of torn-up dirt roads, a group of travelers from Westhampton Beach set out on foot up a steeply inclined path in the mountainous Dhading region of Nepal.They wound their way along the cliffs and terraced gardens, as villagers young and old greeted them with dozens of hand-strewn flower leis. Nearing the end of the journey, two steel suspension bridges stretching across a river valley came into view—the culmination of an international effort that began with one man’s dream to help children safely reach their school.
The travelers—members of the Rotary Club of Westhampton and the family of Lou Capozzola, a famed Sports Illustrated photographer from Westhampton Beach, with whom the dream began—witnessed the blessing and dedication of the bridges. The ceremony, on September 26, left no question about the immense impact the structures would have on generations of Nepali villagers to come.
In 2011, Mr. Capozzola and his wife, Pam, along with his son, Taj, had set out to visit his daughter, Eva Capozzola, who was working to raise awareness about women’s health while learning and teaching organic farming in Nepal, thanks to a grant from Westhampton Rotary.
During the visit, he caught a glimpse of a front-page newspaper article and photograph showing children crossing a river by inching themselves across a rope suspended about 50 feet in the air. The article explained that three adults and two children had died when the rope snapped—an all-too-common occurrence for that region.
Mr. Capozzola left Nepal determined to end such tragedies.
“Lou wanted a copy of that newspaper to take home with him, so the children in our village could know what the Nepali children will do to get to school,” Ms. Capozzola told the crowd during the bridge ceremony last month. “He was touched by the display of courage and dedication witnessed in that photo.”
In August 2011, just two months after the trip, however, Mr. Capozzola died at age 61, before he had a chance to realize his dream. To honor his memory and his generous nature, his wife and family took it upon themselves to complete the project. They collected donations from family members and friends across the country, and soon enlisted the support of the Rotary Club of Westhampton, as well as Rotary International and the Rotary Club of Dhulikhel, led by past president Ashok Kumar Shrestha.
“Ashok said to Eva that night, ‘We’re building this bridge, and we’re doing it for your dad,’ and there was no stopping him from there,” Ms. Capozzola said during an interview last week, recalling the day she broke the news of her husband’s death to her daughter.
After raising a total of $48,000, the group had enough to build two bridges about three miles apart, each stretching between 200 and 300 meters across the valley. Late last month, Ms. Capozzola, accompanied by her children and family members, as well as Chad Vanderslice, president of Westhampton Rotary, his family members and Rotary member Paul Haines, traveled to Nepal to attend a blessing ceremony for the two recently completed bridges.
Hundreds of local villagers greeted the group when they arrived at the site of both bridges, where the ceremonies were held. Many expressed a deep gratitude for the help from the community so many miles away.
“I felt like I floated down that path—I don’t even think I was watching where I was putting my feet,” Ms. Capozzola said. “It was like being in a dream.”
The bridges, made from galvanized steel provided by the Nepali government and built by local villagers, serve villages that are underrepresented in government. They allow hundreds of schoolchildren in blue uniforms to scurry safely to their classrooms each day without the danger of plunging into the river below. Farmers, too, are able to reach their fields on either side, and herd their livestock across. One farmer explained that the bridge allowed him to carry nearly 10 times the load of produce to the market during the rainy season.
Extra funds were used to purchase school supplies for the children, and to build a water pipeline stretching from the source in the mountains to a local village.
“Once we got there, it was just so, so much bigger than you could have ever imagined,” Mr. Vanderslice explained. “To actually put your feet on the ground and actually see the end result and know where the money has gone is very rare.”
His daughter, Katie, and nephew Chapman, both 16, as well as his father, Fred Vanderslice, all accompanied him on the trip. Mr. Vanderslice explained that Nepal is a nation filled with immense beauty, both cultural and physical, that seems to teeter on the edge of disarray. While driving through the more populated areas, on roads that lack guardrails and traffic controls of any kind, they counted at least a half dozen times when they were convinced their vehicle was about to tumble off the side of a cliff or strike passing motorists head-on.
But Mr. Vanderslice said they were grateful for the opportunity to learn from the Nepali villagers and to establish a lasting relationship that could bring more good in the future. “I’m sure there are going to be more joint ventures,” he said.
Ms. Capozzola traveled along with her son, Taj, his partner, Lianna Owens, her dad, Chris, and brother Trevor, as well as Mr. Capozzola’s sister, Barbara Capozzola Alloway, and her husband, Don Alloway.
“I don’t think words were even necessary,” she said of their interaction with the thankful villagers during the bridge dedication ceremonies. “I love the bridge idea, because it’s not political, it’s not social, it’s not religious. You’re not asking them to change their lifestyle or their beliefs or their lives in any way. They’re empowered. Nothing more, nothing less.”
She added that she, like Mr. Vanderslice, hoped to see more good come from the friendships formed out of her late husband’s generosity. The project reconnected her with old friends, drew her closer to family, and helped her connect in a direct way with the Nepali people, whom she described as warm and inviting.
“It’s a momentum that you’d hate to see stop,” she said. “It’s a bridge in so many ways.”