Anne Ford 2014-12-09 03:28:01
After a tsunami destroyed untold numbers of books on tropical islands, Lions of Alaska and others got to work. When Kato Ha’unga of Anchorage, Alaska, heard in September 2009 that a tsunami had struck her homeland—the Polynesian island kingdom of Tonga—she called her family there immediately. Were they among the 10 killed or the 200 left homeless? No. That was the good news. The bad news, as a young cousin informed her over the telephone, was: “All our books are wet.” Tonga, which lies in the southwestern Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and Hawaii, is not a typical nation. It comprises some 170 islands, of which fewer than 40 are inhabited. About two-thirds of Tonga’s 106,000 people live on the main island, Tongatapu. Ha’unga, who had spent her childhood in Tonga before moving to Alaska for college, knew how scarce books were there. Though Tonga boasts a literacy rate of 99 percent, reading material is all but nonexistent outside of schools— and none too plentiful even there. “When I went to school,” she recalls, “there were little books in the classroom, like five of them, and we read them over and over and over—sitting in a circle and passing around these books. And the only book we had at home was the Bible.” And so, since she’d moved to the United States, Ha’unga had made a point of regularly sending books to her family in Tonga. But now the tsunami had destroyed even those. “I thought to myself, ‘What can I do to help my country?’” she says. The next day, she found herself making a flyer and emailing it to her friends and coworkers, asking them to donate books to establish a small library in her uncle’s home in Tonga—just someplace “where all the little kids in the village could come and read,” she says. Little did she know that, with the help of several Lions clubs, an Alaskan senator, the U.S. Navy, and many others, her tiny project would turn into something truly groundbreaking: one of the first public libraries in all of Tonga. Getting books proved to be the easy part. Word spread about the need and soon more than 3,000 donated volumes bulged from the back seat of Ha’unga’s car, huddled under her desk, towered in stacks in borrowed garages and offices—and that was before the Anchorage Daily News wrote about her. After that, the donations swelled to more than 40,000 books. As the months and then years passed, Ha’unga began to fret that the books might never stop coming. Realizing this was no in-home reading room they were creating, Ha’unga and her uncle contacted Tonga’s Ministry of Education, which agreed to donate a former community hall to serve as a public library. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “And there I was still trying to figure out the shipping part!” Tonga lies about 6,000 miles from Anchorage, and getting so many books there, Ha’unga learned, would cost about $10,000. An impossible sum, she thought—but when she felt like giving up hope, she thought of her new friends, the Lions. As a prominent member of Anchorage’s substantial Polynesian community, Ha’unga had been asked in 2012 to help found a new club, the Anchorage Polynesian Lions. Not only did the club adopt the library project right away, but every Lion she met, it seemed, wanted to help somehow. “When I went to the district convention in Fairbanks, I came back with boxes of books,” she says. “And they donated $300 to help me with the cost of shipping. It really touched my heart.” It was also through the Lions that Ha’unga met Walt Hays, a member of Anchorage’s Mt. McKinley Lions Club, who arranged to have 40 boxes of brand-new school curriculum materials donated. Another Lion, Ross Boring of the Bethel Lions Club in Alaska, had rescued the materials from a landfill and was looking for a home for them. “It was a brand-new curriculum and brand-new books,” says Boring. “I just hate to see things go to waste, and I know that children need books to read. If they can’t read, they’ll have a very difficult time.” Hays heard about his plight, and worked with Boring and with Dick Witherite of the College Station Noon Lions in Texas to raise shipping funds so that the materials could join the thousands of other books waiting to be shipped across the ocean. “My wife was a second-grade teacher, so those books meant something to us,” Witherite says. “When we heard about it, we wanted to do something to help.” Ha’unga’s wait finally ended when U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska heard about the project and arranged for the books to be shipped to Tonga on a Navy ship via Operation Handclasp, a project that transports educational and humanitarian materials around the world. In June 2013, the books arrived in Tonga, along with two boxes of reading glasses donated by the Lions of Multiple District 49. The volumes were ceremonially welcomed by the entire Tongan legislative assembly, unloaded from the ship by the Tongan army, and unpacked by seemingly every man, woman and child in the country. On hand were such governmental officials as Tongan Prime Minister Lord Tu‘ivakan, a member of the Nuku’alofa Lions Club on Tongatapu island. Ha’unga was there, of course, along with several friends such as Serine Halverson, a photographer who helped document the whole wonderful, chaotic scene. “They were so excited to read the books and look at the pictures,” Halverson says. “Some of the older kids, who could read English, were reading some of the books. One girl was saying she was so excited to read a new book—she liked the romance novels. It was instant gratification.” So plentiful was the bounty that Ha’unga ended up establishing not one but two libraries—the Princess Kaimana Northern Lights Library on the island of Tongatapu, and the Tongoleleka Northern Lights Library in Tonga’s Ha’apai Islands—both of them named for the beautiful natural light display that famously graces the skies of northern latitudes such as Alaska’s. A nongovernmental organization called Project HOPE supplied volunteers to organize the books and to provide librarian training. The Princess Kaimana library is up and running, while the Tongoleleka library is awaiting renovations to the building that will house it. Her dream realized, Ha’unga has returned to Alaska. But is this project really over? “Let me tell you,” she laughs, “the moment I landed, the Lions club called and said, ‘There’s still people coming here with books.’ I’ve filled up five pallets already. People know me: ‘Here’s the book lady.’”
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://digital.lionmagazine.org/article/Books+for+Tonga/1881895/237959/article.html.