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Alaskan’s dream for library in Tonga finally becoming reality

Ben Anderson
Kato Ha'unga, with the nearly 30,000 books that she has collected to start Tonga's first library. October 9, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The community hall on the Ha'apai Islands of Tonga, which was donated as the future home of the Northern Lights Library, a project by Anchorage resident Kato Ha'unga.
Courtesy Kato Ha'unga
The community hall on the Ha'apai Islands of Tonga, which was donated as the future home of the Northern Lights Library, a project by Anchorage resident Kato Ha'unga.
Courtesy Kato Ha'unga
Kato Ha'unga, with the nearly 30,000 books that she has collected to start Tonga's first library. October 9, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Kato Ha'unga with some of her 40,000 books, palletized and ready for shipment to Tonga. The books will be for Tonga's first library. Feb 7, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Kato Ha'unga with some of her 40,000 books, being palletized for shipment to Tonga with the help of Mormon missionaries. The books will be for Tonga's first library. Feb 7, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Kato Ha'unga with some of her 40,000 books, palletized and ready for shipment to Tonga. The books will be for Tonga's first library. Feb 7, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Kato Ha'unga's uncle and cousins, who inspired her to start the library project, in the Ha'apai Islands of Tonga.
Courtesy Kato Ha'unga
The community hall on the Ha'apai Islands of Tonga, which was donated as the future home of the Northern Lights Library, a project by Anchorage resident Kato Ha'unga.
Courtesy Kato Ha'unga

If you want to see what happiness looks like, look no further than Anchorage’s Kato Ha’unga, whose three-year mission of delivering tens of thousands of books to her home nation of Tonga -- for that country’s first-ever public library -- is finally nearing an end.

On Thursday, a group of volunteers were working to move the books out of an Anchorage storage unit for which Ha’unga has been paying almost $300 each month, just to keep the books warm and dry. They were being moved to the shop of the Bristol Alliance of Companies, where the boxes of books were being put onto pallets and wrapped, getting prepped for their long trip to Tonga.

Throughout it all, Ha’unga hopped about, a huge smile permanently on her face. She wore a bright fluorescent safety vest, a flower in her hair, and a knitted wrap around her neck made for her by a friend. As she spoke, she wiped her eyes, tears of happiness cropping up unexpectedly as she spoke of her dream finally coming to fruition.

“I cried last night,” she said. “I didn’t even wear makeup today. I cried on my way here. I couldn’t even sleep.”

She got out of bed at 5 a.m. Thursday. The night before, she had gone through her mother’s house, dumping every spare book into the house into boxes, or throwing them in the car. Ha’unga has never said no to a book, and even now, she’s determined to send as many as she can to Tonga.

Chuck Croley, a field superintendant with Bristol Alliance who helped coordinate the first leg of the books’ move to Tonga, said that it was hard not to get excited about the project, especially after meeting Ha’unga. “She just has this infectious enthusiasm,” Croley said. “I expect her to levitate, she’s so excited. Sometimes she does -- when she’s walking, she’s skipping instead.”

The books still have a long way to go to finally arrive home in Tonga, where they’ll be housed in a building that used to be a community hall on the Ha’pai Islands, donated with the express purpose of becoming the nation’s first library.

It will be called the Northern Lights Library.

The story so far

Ha’unga began her quest to build a library in Tonga after the country was devastated by a pair of huge earthquakes and a subsequent tsunami in September 2009.

Ha’unga, born in Anchorage but raised in Tonga before returning to the U.S. to attend the University of Alaska Anchorage, was frantic with worry about her family thousands of miles away.

Everyone was safe. But by the time she got a hold of her family after the tsunami, all that her young cousin wanted was books, because his had gotten wet, Ha’unga told Alaska Dispatch in October.

So she began gathering up books, which eventually turned into the idea for a library. By 2010, she’d amassed a collection of about 3,000 books. By late last year, she estimated she had about 40,000 books. Now, she guesses it’s closer to 45,000, but admits that she no longer knows exactly.

With all those books, getting them to Tonga went from a relatively simple proposition to an extremely difficult logistical challenge. She estimated it could have cost tens of thousands to deliver the books to the country, 6,000 miles away.

“I looked at shipping them one box a time,” she said. “But it was like $399 to just send one box of books.”

Which wasn’t a realistic option. So the books sat in storage. But no longer.

Legs of the journey

Last fall, a rather influential person took notice of Ha’unga’s project -- U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

“As an avid reader with her own ongoing campaign to get used books to Alaska schools and libraries, the senator inquired with staff if there was any lever we had access to at the federal level to help this Alaskan trying to further the fight for the written word,” Murkowski spokesman Matt Felling said in an email.

One program eventually stood out as a viable option for delivering the books, the U.S. Navy’s Project Handclasp, specializing in humanitarian deliveries and aid to countries all over the world. Project Handclasp would be capable of taking the books -- but they could only transport them from San Diego to Tonga. It was up to Ha’unga to figure out the rest of the journey.

The other catch: The books needed to be ready to go in San Diego by March 1, or the books might miss the departure of the naval vessel that would carry them. The wait for another mission to the region could be longer than a year, Ha’unga was told.

She discovered the news in January. That left her about two months to figure out how to get the books to San Diego from Anchorage, an expensive proposition.

Then, another dose of serendipity was injected into the story of the Northern Lights Library. Ha’unga is currently participating in a program called Leadership Anchorage, a project of the Alaska Humanities Forum which aims to  prepare young professionals for leadership roles in the community. As part of that program, Bristol Industries chief executive Joe Terrell came to speak to the current group of participants. At some point during his visit, Ha’unga’s library project came up.

“Joe heard about the project, and he said ‘Oh, we might be able to help with that,’” said Melissa Campbell, multimedia content editor with Bristol Industries.

From there, things moved quickly -- Croley, who frequently coordinates the movement of materials and equipment around Alaska and the rest of the U.S., evaluated the prospects of palletizing the books and getting them ready for transport. Then, other organizations began to come into play. After the books were moved to the Bristol Alliance shop on Thursday -- with the help of a crew of Mormon missionaries from out of state who volunteered to help move the books from point A to point B -- Carlile Transportation will pick them up at the beginning of next week.

They’ll be taken to the Anchorage port, where TOTE will ship them down to Tacoma, Wash.

“Whenever we get the shipment, it will go on the next ship south,” said Leigha Ducharme, a TOTE spokeswoman. In Tacoma, Carlile will again step up to deliver the books to San Diego, where they’ll be put into storage again until the Navy is ready to depart.

After that, the books go to Tonga, where they’ll be offloaded then taken in much smaller boats, to their final home on the island of Ha’apai.

It wasn’t yet clear how much a shipment like this would have cost if Ha’unga had ended up paying out of pocket. Ducharme estimated the books will likely fill a 40-foot shipping container. “It’s cheaper shipping freight going down than coming up,” Ducharme said, “but it’s nice for companies to come work together like this.”

Annette Sheppard, a spokeswoman for Carlile, agreed. She said that the Tacoma-San Diego route isn’t a normal one for the company, and a partner may end up doing the final leg of that delivery.

“We do a lot of stuff in state, but it’s really interesting when you get so many organizations and components all working together,” Sheppard said. “It’s not very often that we get to work with the Navy on a humanitarian effort.”

Everybody involved expressed confidence the books would arrive prior to March 1, and Ha’unga is hoping the books reach their final destination in May.  “I hope the books will get there on May 10,” Ha’unga said. “On my 30th birthday.”

There are still a few hurdles to clear, as Ha’unga hopes to be able to visit Tonga when the books arrive, and repairs are needed to fix up and equip the building that will eventually house the books. Ha’unga estimates that repairing the building could cost $20,000. To that end, a fundraising website has been set up.

But one leg of the long journey is finally at an end, and for Ha’unga, a woman whose heart rests in equal parts in Alaska and Tonga, her dream is closer to coming true than it ever has before. And surely the biggest tears of happiness are yet to come.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com