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  • Communications Intern posted an article
    In the aftermath of disaster, raising awareness and funds to support community-driven response see more

    In the aftermath of disaster, raising awareness and funds to support community-driven response

     

    By Michael Hassett and Chiara Collette

    Relief supplies for communities devastated by the eruption and tsunami. Photo by Drew Havea

     

    On January 15, an underwater volcano erupted in the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific, sending a wide plume of soot and gas miles into the air. The eruption was so enormous that it was heard as far away as Alaska and was seen from space. The island group of Ha‘apai, where the eruption occurred, was battered. Forty miles south, tsunami waves crashed into Tongatapu, the largest and most populous island in Tonga, and devastated much of its northern coast. Nearby, the island of ‘Eua’s western coast was also hammered.

     

    Satellite photo of volcanic eruption in Tonga 2022

    View from space: The Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha‘apai volcanic eruption. Photo courtesy Tonga Meteorological Services 

     

    In the immediate aftermath of the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha‘apai volcanic eruption, much was unknown; the fiber-optic cable that connects Tonga to the rest of the world was severed. While local telecommunication companies scrambled to reestablish communication, information was slow to trickle out. What was immediately clear: The Kingdom of Tonga was now a household name, and the recovery efforts would take years.

    Miraculously, there were only a handful of fatalities. But damage to property was extensive; the outer island of Mango lost every home, and other islands incurred significant damage, which has resulted in at least four outer-island communities being evacuated to Tongatapu.

    As the dust and volcanic ash settled, it coated everything, affecting both food and water security. Many Tongans are subsistence farmers, and the salt water from the tsunami and the ash from the volcano have spoiled large swaths of farmland. Likewise, the vast majority of drinking water comes from rainwater collected via roofs of homes and stored in collection tanks. The ash contaminated water tanks and turned water into lye.

     

    The outpouring of support from across the Peace Corps community and around the world has been inspiring and breathtaking.

     

    Within 48 hours of the eruption, Friends of Tonga began raising money to support disaster relief efforts. The outpouring of support from across the Peace Corps community and around the world has been inspiring and breathtaking. Many organizations, celebrities, and athletes — including the UFC fighter Ronda Rousey, the rugby star Charles Piutau, and the Bristol Bears, Wales Scarlets, London Saracens, and Guernsey Raiders rugby clubs — have publicly endorsed us. We have already used this increased recognition to raise awareness on behalf of Tongan communities and have already invested this financial support into targeted and accountable interventions to uplift affected communities.

     

    Men unloading food from a boat in Tonga

    Food for the outer islands of Fonoi and Nomuka, which were cut off from supplies for two weeks. Friends of Tonga funded the harvesting of food and transportation of these cartons through the Civil Society Forum of Tonga’s innovative Cash for Crops program. Photo by Drew Havea

     

    Our disaster relief efforts are driven by Tongan organizations and local stakeholders that can best guide equitable and responsible resource allocation to target communities with the most need. To date, Friends of Tonga has transferred $30,000 to support programming and projects led by both the Civil Society Forum of Tonga (CSFT) and the Mainstreaming of Rural Development Innovation Trust (MORDI). We have funded water, sanitation, and hygiene services programs targeting food security and agricultural resilience, as well as mental health services.

    Once communities have stabilized, Friends of Tonga intends to support the Ministry of Education to rebuild the schools that were destroyed and replace them with weather-resistant structures.

    Though the news cycle has moved on, the Kingdom of Tonga still faces multiple crises, now including COVID-19. Until this year, Tonga was one of a few fortunate countries that did not have a single recorded case of community spread. But the flood of relief services from outside countries changed that; cases have quickly spread and spiked. At the time of writing, Tonga is currently under lockdown with 3,784 reported cases of COVID-19 and two deaths. This has significantly complicated relief efforts, which will have further implications in itself.

    These crises will take years to mitigate. Friends of Tonga will be there for the duration, supporting community-driven initiatives and advocating for the Kingdom of Tonga and her people.

     

    Learn more about Friends of Tonga and how you can help.


    Michael Hassett served in Tonga 2012–14 as an English language facilitator in the village of Fahefa, Tongatapu.

    Chiara Collette served 2012–14 in the village of Ta’anga on the island of ‘Eua as an English language facilitator, teacher, and teacher trainer.

     

  • Communications Intern posted an article
    It was the creation of a virtual read-aloud program that brought the award. see more

    A virtual read-aloud program brings recognition from the 2021 Library of Congress Literacy Awards Program.

     

    By NPCA Staff

     

    Friends of Tonga, established by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers in 2018, got some well-earned recognition this fall: 2021 Library of Congress Literacy Awards Program Best Practice Honoree.

    It was the creation of a virtual read-aloud program that brought the award. That program has developed a resource library of videos in which English speakers record themselves reading stories. All books have been authorized by the authors and publishers for use. The video library, with more than 80 recordings, is housed on the Friends of Tonga website and can be accessed free of charge. The goal: record enough books so that there is one for each day of the Tongan school year.

     

     

    The Library of Congress Literacy Awards Program honors nonprofit organizations in three major prize categories for outstanding contributions to increasing literacy. It also recognizes up to 15 organizations for their successful implementation of a specific literacy practice. This award comes with a $5,000 prize as well as an invitation to a virtual best practices conference.

    Friends of Tonga was also recognized with the 2020 Loret Miller Ruppe Award for Outstanding Community Service, presented by National Peace Corps Association.

     

  • Ana Victoria Cruz posted an article
    Recognizing contributions to community service by two groups founded by Returned Volunteers see more

    Recognizing contributions to community service by two groups founded by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers

    By NPCA Staff

     

    National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) is pleased to announce the winners of the 2020 Loret Miller Ruppe Award for Outstanding Community Service: Friends of Korea and Friends of Tonga. The awards were presented on September 25 at the annual meeting of NPCA.

    Named for the widely admired 10th Director of the Peace Corps, the annual Loret Miller Ruppe Award is presented by NPCA to outstanding affiliate groups for projects that promote the Third Goal of Peace Corps — “strengthen Americans’ understanding about the world and its peoples” — or continue to serve host countries, build group spirit and cooperation, and promote service. Announcing the awards this year was Mary Ruppe Nash, daughter of namesake Loret Miller Ruppe. 

    Here’s how these this year’s honorees have taken Peace Corps ideals to heart. 

     


    Friends of Korea: A guide to understand the transformation of a country

    “We left Korea, but Korea never left us,” Gerry Krzic wrote recently. Krzic serves as president of Friends of Korea, a group founded by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served in the Republic of Korea from 1966 to 1981, when the Peace Corps program was closed. 

    Friends of Korea was established in 2002 to foster connections between people in U.S. and Korea — and between Korean-American communities stateside and wider communities. The group has also sought to foster cultural awareness and cultivate philanthropy.

     

     

    In 2016, Friends of Korea started the Project “Study Guide to Accompany The Korean Transformation,” an easy-to-use manual for educators and workshop facilitators to use when teaching about the dramatic economic, social, and political development of Korea. The guide can be used independently or in conjunction with the “Korean Transformation” DVD (previously made by Friends of Korea). The Study Guide was planned for an initial printing of 40 copies for distribution — however, close to 300 were printed due to great demand. The Study Guide was promoted via electronic media, conference presentations, and teacher/young adult workshops. 
     


    The main purpose of the Study Guide was to promote a better understanding to the American public of the dramatic story of modern-day Korea’s development. In addition to the activities devoted to the story of Korea, the guide purposely included “extension” activities so that students can understand about the diversity in their local community, the Peace Corps and community service, and transformative learning — all of which lend themselves to the development of group spirit, cooperation, and the inclination to serve. The guide also helps Friends of Korea to stay connected with the country where they served by spreading one unique story in particular: Korea is the first Peace Corps partner country in the world to launch its own government-funded overseas volunteer service corps, “World Friends Korea.”

     

    Korea is the first Peace Corps partner country in the world to launch its own government-funded overseas volunteer service corps, “World Friends Korea.”

     

    In accepting the award on behalf of Friends of Korea, Gerry Krzic also paid tribute to Loret Miller Ruppe, addressing her daughter Mary Ruppe Nash: “Mary, I know you have said your mother recognized that peacemaking is a lifelong mission and that she was committed to a spirit of cooperation and service,” he said. “We continue to share the same vision with her.”

    As a book published this year by University of Washington Press details, Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Korea are also credited with playing an instrumental role in developing Korean studies as a discipline in the United States. 

     

    Learn more about Friends of Korea

     

     


    Friends of Tonga: Helping kids tell their stories — and building connections across the world

     

    “On February 11, 2018, Cyclone Gita, with winds that topped 233 km/h — category 4 hurricane strength — slammed into the Pacific island nation of Tonga,” Michael Hassett and Chiara Collette wrote for WorldView magazine. “It was the worst storm in over 60 years and wrought horrendous damage on the islands of Tongatapu and ‘Eua, resulting in two deaths and numerous injuries. More than 2,000 homes were damaged, crops were destroyed across both islands, and 80 percent of the Tongan population was left without power.” 

    Hassett and Collette had served as Peace Corps Volunteers in Tonga. In the wake of that devastating storm, they and other Returned Peace Corps Volunteers mobilized. And the nonprofit Friends of Tonga was formed — to ameliorate the devastation, but also to help fill gaps in delivering education in Tonga.

      

      

    As one of their projects, Friends of Tonga designed and implemented a pen pal exchange program between schools in the United States and Tonga. Teachers are provided with a pen pal guide that gives an overview of the program and its process. When possible, a Friends of Tonga representative has gone to participating schools to introduce both Tonga and the project to the teachers and students. When Friends of Tonga is unable to deliver a presentation in person, slideshows have been created for both Tongan and U.S. teachers to orient their students to the other culture. 

    To increase the impact of the program, teachers can also request specific presentations to match their units of instruction. For example, a kindergarten class in the U.S. requested a presentation that focused on transportation in Tonga.

    To promote sustainability and engagement, a timeline was developed that takes into account the different countries’ school schedules and encourages each school to receive three letters per year. After the presentation is delivered, students are given a letter to respond to from their Tongan pen pal. These letter exchanges typically begin with basic introductory information (e.g. name, village name, favorite sports, and food, etc). As pen pal friends in Tonga become more proficient in English and become more comfortable with their pen pal in the States, the letters become more elaborate with detailed descriptions of life in Tonga.

     

    Class act: Michael Hassett teaching a lesson on Tonga. Photo courtesy Friends of Tonga


    This program enhances literacy rates in Tonga, raises awareness of Tonga and its people, and has increased event participation and donations. “This project is extremely replicable!” says Michael Hassett. Friends of Tonga partners are provided with guidance and an orientation PowerPoint deck to present to their classes, digitally. All of these resources can be found online.

    Why the focus on education? For Hassett, it’s personal. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga 2012–14, he taught in a rural primary school. “It was probably within my first two months at site, when a PTA parent asked if I would be willing to tutor her son in the evenings,” he said in accepting the award on behalf of the group. “ I agreed, and we planned to meet that very night. While waiting on my front porch for my new student to arrive, I was quietly listening to the evening sounds of my village: the pigs and chickens running across my yard, my neighbors preparing the cooking fires, and so on. Just out of eyesight, I heard a commotion. People were yelling in Tongan, ‘Sione, alu ki fe?’  (John where are you going?) Apparently, he answered — because parents began running out of their houses to yell-ask if Maikolo would also teach their kids.”

     

     “Just out of eyesight, I heard a commotion. People were yelling in Tongan, ‘Sione, alu ki fe?’  (John where are you going?)”

     

    It’s a story he tells to underscore how important education is in the community where he served. “Before my eyes, my one student multiplied into a crowd of high school kids from around the village, all bearing plates of food, watermelons, or loaves of bread to give to the palangi who was going to teach their kids English,” he said. “Naturally, I was both amused and shocked at how quickly a one-on-one tutoring session evolved into Maikolo’s Po’ ako (night class).”

    And, Hassett says, as returned Volunteers Friends of Tonga are inspired by that spirit of the village coming together. “To be successful in Tonga, we had to adopt this sharing paradigm,” he said. “It seeped into who we are and it changed us.”

     

     Learn about Friends of Tonga

     September 26, 2020
  • Steven Saum posted an article
    The work and people and place that Natalie Somerville left behind. see more

    Tonga | Natalie Somerville

    Home: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

     

    Photo: Mangrove forest, Tonga. Photo courtesy Natalie Somerville.

     

    Mālō ‘etau lava. Ko Navi au. Na’a ku nofo i Tonga. On the beautiful island of ‘Eua, where I was serving as a Volunteer, I’m known as Navi. When we were evacuated, here’s what I left behind: coconut trees, fresh papaya every day, a group of women who had just committed to practicing healthy lifestyles, my best friend and dog (Navi Kiti), and an adoring, patient partner, with deep love, whom I can’t wait to reunite with. I left behind a vegetable garden that was beginning to sprout, children who smile with their all, and people who laugh from their core. I left behind the clearest night sky I’ve ever seen, and a mat to lay down upon while I stare at the Milky Way. 

     

     

    I left behind the clearest night sky I’ve ever seen, and a mat to lay down upon while I stare at the Milky Way. 

     

    Here’s the unfinished business I’d like you to know about: Practicing healthy living with the Tongans is crucial because the biggest killers out there are preventable. Diabetes and heart disease can be lessened with movement and strengthening of the mind. I want to continue working with the people to extend their happy lives. There is also a group of artists who came to the island I lived on to do a workshop with my students. The importance of self-expression and creativity is food for the soul and crucial for well-being. I hope the Peace Corps keeps a strong connection between education and the arts. Mālō aupito, ‘ofa atu. Many thanks and love to you. 

     

     


    This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.

  • Advocacy Intern posted an article
    The formation of Friends of Tonga see more

    In the wake of a devastating natural disaster, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers mobilized. And the nonprofit Friends of Tonga was formed.

    By Michael Hassett and Chiara Collette

     

    On February 11, 2018, Cyclone Gita, with winds that topped 233 km/h — category 4 hurricane strength — slammed into the Pacific island nation of Tonga. It was the worst storm in over 60 years and wrought horrendous damage on the islands of Tongatapu and ‘Eua, resulting in two deaths and numerous injuries. More than 2,000 homes were damaged, crops were destroyed across both islands, and 80 percent of the Tongan population was left without power.

    Weather in the South Pacific is extremely unpredictable, so the original reporting of a cyclone heading towards Tonga did not cause much concern. (We experienced two of them while we were in the Peace Corps.) However, we watched with increasing worry as the storm bore down: Those were our friends and former students in the path of that storm. 

    In 2012 we were invited to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers in the Kingdom of Tonga. Prior to that invitation to serve, we had never heard of Tonga. Now we can’t imagine our lives without it; the people and the place are with us daily. We forged deep friendships there — and that’s where Chiara and I met and started dating. For me, it led to a calling to be a public servant, while Chiara’s commitment to early childhood development was further solidified. In the wake of that cyclone, we wanted to do everything we could do to help. 

     

    Story time: Michael, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, reads Winnie the Pooh to Class 5. Photo courtesy Michael Hassett

     

    How can we help?

    In the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, some of us in the RPCV Tonga community looked for ways to provide a unified response to assist in disaster relief; however, we hit challenges in logistics and communication, which was frustrating. We wanted to assist right away the country that we fell in love with and which has given us so much. Ultimately this failed response was the impetus for forming a group that would help us connect with the country in good times and bad: Friends of Tonga was formed.

    In the summer of 2018, not even six months after the cyclone, we were married here in the United States and went back to Tonga for our honeymoon. What we witnessed filled us with both sadness and hope: sadness because food was more expensive, drug and alcohol abuse were more prevalent (since the cyclone wiped out the kava supply, many turned to cheaper substitutes), and many buildings were still damaged, including both of our schools where we taught as volunteers.  

    At the same time we felt hope: We saw the resilience of the Tongan spirit, and despite the suffering caused by Cyclone Gita, the Tongan hospitality was still on full display. We stayed with our host families — who surprised us with a traditional Tongan wedding ceremony, the Sapate Uluaki, or “first Sunday.” Those families dressed us in the traditional white wedding garments and special taovalas and other accoutrements, festooned the church with decorations, and prepared a massive feast.  

     

    Wedding attire: Chiara and Michael. Photo courtesy Michael Hassett

     

    While visiting Chiara’s village of Ta’anga, on the outer island of ‘Eua, we met with her neighbor, Finau, who is the village’s kindergarten teacher. Her position is unique in Tonga, since early childhood education is limited and not under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. This means that any early childhood education is delivered by motivated teachers who have the time and resources to create their own kindergarten.

       

    Fill the gaps

    While we were volunteers in Tonga, Finau taught on the far side of ‘Eua from where she lived. Getting there meant taking a combination of buses, hitchhiking, and walking for an hour each way. In 2014, she finally was able to build her own kindergarten in her village of Ta’anga. It’s now one of only two centers for early-childhood education on the island.  

    Tragically, Cyclone Gita flattened the entire structure for the kindergarten. To hold classes, the community began using a donated UNICEF tent. We resolved then and there that Friends of Tonga would help. Not only would we ameliorate the devastation of Cyclone Gita, but we could provide services to fill the gaps of education delivery in Tonga.  

     

    Makeshift kindergarten: The UNICEF tent was where classes were held for two years. Photo courtesy Michael Hassett

     

    For the past three years, we have designed and implemented programs to fulfill our mission. These include: 

    1) a pen pal program that connects elementary schools in the USA and Tonga. We currently have more than 400 participating students;

    2) a scholarship program that funds needy students through high school and that has awarded 16 scholarships to date; 

    3) a video resource library of more than 50 children’s books, read by native English speakers, with accompanying resources meant to enhance English literacy delivery by both Peace Corps Volunteers and Tongan teachers; 

    4) rebuilding the Ta’anga kindergarten — because two years later, classes are still held in a tent. 

    Despite these successful projects, we know the real value of Friends of Tonga will be put to the test at some point — when, not if, the next severe weather event hits.  

     

     Group hug: the Ta‘anga kindergarten. Photo courtesy Michael Hassett

     

    Flexibility, zeal — and partners

    It has been a long and arduous process to get the Ta’anga kindergarten built, fraught with unique challenges. Despite the prolonged timeline and the various challenges, we are well on our way to making it a reality. 

    We’ve kept in mind lessons learned as Peace Corps Volunteers: With flexibility, a whole lot of zeal, and sustained effort over a long period of time, any challenge can be surmounted. 

    Moreover, we have been pleasantly surprised by unexpected allies and donors. We have partnered with the nonprofit Schools for Children of the World (SCW), which has built more than 100 schools across the Caribbean, Africa, and Central America. SCW has already designed the plans for a space in Ta’anga that is handicap accessible, earthquake and cyclone resistant, and has running water, natural ventilation, and a new playground. The Ta’anga community has donated the land and has pledged the labor to construct the building. We have raised over half of the funds needed to complete the project. We plan to break ground in spring 2020  and have construction complete by the beginning of 2021.  

    As we say in Tonga: ‘Ofa lahi atu! We love you heaps!

     

    Michael Hassett served in Tonga 2012–14 as an English Language Facilitator in the village of Fahefa, Tongatapu. He is a Budget Analyst, in the Office of International Affairs and Seafood Inspection, at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Chiara Collette served 2012–14 in the village of Ta'anga on the island of 'Eua, working as an English language facilitator, teaching English to classes, and training teachers. Since the Peace Corps, Chiara has taught kindergarten, first and third grade in Maryland.  She now also works at NOAA and is a Junior Analyst in the Office of Management in Budget.  

     

    National Peace Corps Association supports the Peace Corps community and is dedicated to helping members and affiliate groups thrive.

     

    Find out more, get involved: friendsoftonga.org