Since September, Luca Caputo has been an Italian exchange student at Staples. He’s enjoyed his year, adapting to Westport and discovering America.
Last week, he was invited for coffee at the home of an Italian family here. As he was leaving, they asked him to stay a few minutes longer. A friend named Carla was coming.
Carla Rea is a longtime Westporter. But she spent the first 20 years of her life in Italy, so naturally she asked Luca where he was from.
“Near Naples” was not good enough for her. Neither was “Near Salerno.”
Carla is an inquisitive sort. What town? she asked again.
“Potenza,” Luca answered.
Well, Carla wondered, had he ever heard of Balvano?
Though a very small village, it’s only 10 minutes from Potenza. Luca said, “sure!” In fact, his mother was born there. And his grandparents spent 50 years in Balvano.
Carla knew Balvano well. Over 30 years ago, an earthquake devastated the region. More than 3,000 people were killed. Carla and her husband Mike were moved by the stories of destruction — particularly the 39 children who died when a church collapsed on them.
The Reas and other Westporters quickly collected blankets and clothing. Wanting to do more, they enlisted the help of fellow Westporter Francesca Lodge, the Italian-born wife of former Connecticut governor and Ambassador to Spain John Davis Lodge.
That group formed the Sons of Italy to continue the relief effort. The organization raised over $250,000 for the reconstruction of Balvano.
Inspired even further, Carla invited all the children of the village to come to America. Soon, Westport and Norwalk embraced 19 youngsters, and the mayor. They were feted here, then enjoyed New York, Washington and Disney World.
But that was not the end of the Sons of Italy. In 1984, the group sponsored a “Festival Italiano” in Saugatuck. It was an instant success. For 27 years — until 2010 — the Italian Fest was a beloved summertime institution. Tens of thousands of men, women and children traveled from as far as Brooklyn for food, rides and music.
Luca knew much of the earthquake story. He recalls the date — November 23, 1980 — instantly, though it was a decade and a half before he was born. His mother was 15 years old at the time. She survived, but a cousin died. Luca also knew that Americans had helped rebuild Balvano.
But until last week — chatting with Carla Rea — Luca had no idea that much of the aid came from the town that, for the last 8 months, he’s called home.
Carla called Luca’s mother in Italy. The women spoke in Italian. It was an astonishing conversation.
The 19 children who came to Westport were all Luca’s mother’s friends. She had not made the trip, though; she was busy moving with her parents into a new home.
It took 30 years, but finally a member of her family was in Westport too.
A few days later, Luca visited the Reas’ home. Carla showed him scrapbooks she’s kept.
Then she pointed to a cross on her wall. A gift from the grateful citizens of Balvano, it had been saved from the church that collapsed in the quake — the same church that inspired Carla to action in 1980, and where Luca’s cousin died.
“America is huge,” Luca says. “But somehow, in all of America I came to Westport. And I met Carla.
“Really, I think, the world is very, very small.”