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Utah business owner building 2nd hospital in Nepal

SALT LAKE CITY — What do you do for an encore after you've raised a million dollars and built a hospital to serve poor kids in Nepal?

For a Salt Lake business owner, the answer is: Build another one.

Officials in Nepal recently broke ground for a second hospital to be built almost entirely with funds raised in Utah.

It all began on Salt Lake City's east side, where Jim Webber, owner of Foothill Oriental Rugs, has been selling rugs from Nepal for a quarter-century.

"These are rugs made in our factory in Kathmandu," he said, showing off a variety of colorful carpets. "We employ over 500 people and we provide them housing. I feel like we're giving them an opportunity. We're feeding a lot of people."

Over time he saw a pressing need for medical facilities in Nepal, especially to deal with the high incidence of cleft palates, cleft lips and burn injuries that disfigure large numbers of people — especially kids. Webber saw a chance to "return something" to the country that supports his business in Utah.

"On some level it became my spiritual home," Webber said. "It's just an amazing place."

After years of fundraising in Utah, Webber opened the Nepal Cleft and Burn Center in Kathmandu in 2015. It's a three-story, 16,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art surgical center. Thousands of kids have undergone surgery to improve their facial appearance, a relatively simple procedure that can often lead to dramatic improvement in a child's quality of life.

"This is Nepal's first teaching hospital for cleft lips and palates and other reconstructive surgical procedures," Webber said.

Treating burns turned out to be a much bigger need than expected. Most people in Nepal cook over open fires. Because parents work, children are often unattended, leaving them vulnerable to severe burn injuries.

"In three short years, we have become Nepal's No. 1 treatment center for acute burn injuries," Webber said.

A groundbreaking ceremony recently kicked off the next project, a second hospital in a highly populated district of Nepal near the border with India.

"Nepal, even though it's a tiny country, has more people than the entire country of Canada crowded into a tiny space," Webber said. "And that, combined with rampant poverty, I mean, there's a huge need for a second Nepal Cleft and Burn Center."

Webber's immediate goal is to raise about $100,000 for the second hospital. But the building is just the beginning. There's an ongoing need for money to pay for medical equipment and trained medical staff.

Construction will start this fall, he said, and it won't be long before Utah dollars are helping even more people in need, halfway around the world.

"We've raised about half the money we need to build the new hospital," Webber said. "But we're going to go ahead with it because we have confidence that we're going to complete the fundraising."

Webber said there is talk among Nepalese officials of building a new medical school that would use the Nepal Cleft and Burn Center as its core facility.

"Now, it's just talk at this point," Webber said, "but at least the government realizes the importance and the impact that our facility has for the poor people of Nepal. And the amazing thing is, we do it all from this little business in Salt Lake City."

The annual fundraising dinner for the Nepal Cleft and Burn Center is May 11 at The Falls Event Center in Trolley Square.