It started with remnants of torn up, soggy books.
When UAA student, Kato Ha’unga got news of the 2009 tsunami that ripped through her homeland, Tonga, she frantically called her family to check if everyone was alive.
Her uncle answered in native Tongan language, “Io, ka ‘oku maumau kotoa ai u tohi a tamaiki,” which translates to:
“Yes, but all the kid’s books are damaged.”
A fiery passion ignited within Ha’unga. She spent much time and money sending books to her family, and they were destroyed so simply in one event.
Ha’unga decided it was time to start the first public library in Tonga, and today her dream is coming into fruition with the help of dozens of organizations — from offices on campus to U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, to the U.S. Navy.
Life In Tonga
Tonga is the only remaining kingdom in the Polynesian islands today. It is made up of 176 islands, and only 52 of those are inhabited.
Students in the school systems of Tonga are taught to leave the islands to seek secondary education in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Some return home after finishing secondary education. However, most remain overseas and take on the responsibility of sending money and goods, like books back to the families left in the islands.
Though Ha’unga was born in Alaska, she was raised with her grandmother in Haveluloto on the island of Tongatapu before returning back to attend UAA.
“I grew up reading books. That was the only thing to expose me beyond the beach to the world outside of Tonga,” Ha’unga said. “When I first saw this business girl in a magazine, I wanted to be a business girl too. I remember running and waving at planes and imaging one day that I’m going to be in that airplane.”
A number of news sources have chronicled Ha’unga’s project in depth over a course of nearly four years, including the Anchorage Daily News, the Alaska Dispatch and the campus news feature “I am UAA.”
Ha’unga’s collection started with four books from a “free” cart outside the UAA bookstore, then the book collecting frenzy swept throughout Alaska.
Ha’unga cited several donors such as Rick Mystrom, former Anchorage mayor; Lynnette Sullivan, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan’s wife; and Judge Pamela Washington of the Anchorage District Court.
The Anchorage Loussac Library and the UAA Bookstore have donated pallets of books. The UAA Wolfcard office donated a truck full of books as well. Other organizations on campus have donated books, such as Disability Support Services, the College of Business, the University Center, the UAA/APU Consortium Library and Native Student Services.
The Polynesian Association of Alaska, AK Pride and Bridge Builders also donated services like more books and storage space. Some ASD teachers have donated 100 percent of their own books.
Through the help of these organizations and individuals, as well as many other contributors, Ha’unga has over 50,000 books today and has spent more than $8000 in storage fees. She is ready to ship them to Tonga.
From Alaska to Tonga
Through a class with Leadership Anchorage, Ha’unga made connections with Joe Terrell, CEO of Bristol Alliance Companies, who has offered to take the books from Alaska to San Diego.
Melissa Campbell, multimedia content editor for Bristol Industries in Anchorage, said that they will use the logistics services of Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE) to get the books to Tacoma. Then the transportation company Carlisle will take the books to San Diego.
“To be able for her (Ha’unga) to organize to make it happen is truly amazing so we are really excited to be a part of it,” Leigha Ducharme, human resources and administrative supervisor for TOTE said.
After reading an article about the project in the Alaska Dispatch, Senator Murkowski had her office in Washington D.C. contact Ha’unga and offered to help ship the books to Tonga.
Senator Murkowski’s communications director, Matthew Felling, said in a statement issued to TNL,
“Senator Murkowski was informed of the Tonga effort and thought her position as a federal lawmaker could help this Alaskans’ worthy goal, by making use of what transport vehicles were already on hand and making trips to the region. If this woman is bound and determined to aid her country, Senator Murkowski is an avid reader and more than happy to connect the dots from her end and make this happen.”
Sen. Murkowski has used her connections with the U.S. Navy to ship the books from San Diego to Tonga.
The Northern Lights Library, Ha’apai Tonga
Ha’unga is now working with Princess Salote Pilolevu Tuita of Tonga to settle affairs with the library in the islands. Ha’unga has found an empty hall to transform into what will be called the Northern Lights Library in the Ha’apai islands of Tonga and has formed a library committee.
Adam Legg, Creative Arts and Communications pastor of ChangePoint Church, has donated time and money in creating the logo and website for the library at http://www.northernlightslibrary.com.
Ha’unga said she was inspired by both her life in Alaska and life with her grandmother in Tonga when thinking of the name for the library.
“Grandma never left the island. Through books, me and Grandma could travel. She can see the Eiffel Tower. She sees the Northern Lights of Alaska.”
Aside from the library project, Ha’unga is constantly finding more new things to get into. In addition to her economics major, she is now a major in art.
“My new passion is painting. I imagine my paintings in the library. Maybe my next project is to start the first art gallery in Tonga,” Ha’unga said.
Next to Ha’unga’s paintings on the library walls will be a massive frame holding her award from the Alaska Legislature, honoring her for her “extraordinary work on the Northern Lights Library Project.”
The opening date is still a working progress.
Ha’unga’s story has inspired many in Alaska and will continue to inspire the children of Tonga. When she realized that her uncle mentioned the loss of books in the same sentence about life during the tsunami, she said she knew she had to take advantage of her resources in Alaska to replace something we often take for granted.
Ha’unga keeps in mind the one thing young Tongans keep in their hearts no matter how far they journey, “Manatu ‘ofa ki hoku tupu’anga,” which means, “Always remember where I come from.”
Mao Tosi, founder of the AK Pride program and manager of the Northway Mall, recalls when Ha’unga filled the empty spaces of the mall with her books in the beginning stages of her vision.
“That’s what I love about it. No matter when people closed doors, she’s stayed persistent, she hasn’t stopped,” Tosi said. “There’s got to be more “Katos” out there.”
For more information or to donate to the Northern Lights Library, visit www,northernlightlibrary.org.